Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Secrets of Isis Episode 4: "The Sound of Silence"

Andrea Thomas proves herself an absolute genius when she invents a uranium pellet-powered force field device she calls the “Circle Guard.”  Both Rick Mason and Cindy Lee refuse to throw a baseball at Thomas to demonstrate—Mr. Mason kids his insurance doesn't cover "beaning teachers who think they're invulnerable," while Cindy jokes, “Not me!  I don’t have enough friends as it is!” 

It’s no problem for the school’s other genius, Bill, played by actor-artist Leigh McCloskey.  Old timers like Bill Haverchuck and I remember him as Lucy Ewing's husband on Dallas; dude has an incredible voice, by the way (I'm jealous because I sound like Wallace Shawn on helium).  McCloskey is handsome, with a patrician air about him that reminds me quite a lot of Armie Hammer's dual role as the Winklevoss Twins in The Social Network.  Maybe because I think he looks like Armie Hammer.  That McCloskey gives such a polished performance is a plus because he's onscreen more than the series regulars, apart from Cameron.  

Bill helps Ms. Thomas with her baseball demonstration, astounding everyone in the room.  Brilliant student that he is, he quickly grasps the scientific principals involved and wonders out loud (mistake) if “the other side” might pay a pretty penny for it.  Later, in private with Ms. Thomas, Bill reveals his anger at having not only lost a science contest but also at having made a fool of himself by bragging to his classmates about the car he planned to buy with the cash prize.  See?  I'm not crazy to make this Social Network association.  It turns out Bill even has the movie Winklevoss's sense of outraged white guy entitlement, if not their wealth.

When the Circle Guard vanishes, Bill is the prime suspect.  The only suspect.  And yeah, he’s the thief.  His brilliant plan is to sell the Circle Guard to Jack Evans, boss of an organized crime gang of one or as many as two members.  But he must be a bad, bad man because the very name of Jack Evans strikes fear in the hearts of our three Larkspur High crime-busters.

All poor Bill wants to do is make a quick score and buy a sharp car to impress his friends so he can once again feel like a BMOC.  But the conniving Evans (veteran character actor Philip Bruns-- later of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and many others-- plays Evans with a touch of comic menace without ham-fisting it) has other plans.  Meanwhile, Ms. Thomas realizes the Circle Guard’s uranium fuel leaks radioactivity whenever someone activates the device.  Can Isis save Bill from himself, and the deadly effects of radiation?

"The Sound of Silence" (the title seems to be a non sequitor; silence plays no role in the plot, nor does sound in any unusual way) is more exciting than the three previous episodes put together (See?  You guys really needed to open “Fool’s Dare” with that bike race!), with a crime lord, action, comedic relief plus a smidgen of something resembling science.  Or, as Rick Mason would have it, science fiction.  Nothing beats watching Joanna Pang and Brian Cutler do the infamous mime bit, “The Invisible Box” while pretending to press against the Circle Guard’s force field.  The baseball richocet effect is surprisingly violent and convincing, though.  Later, Jocko, Evans’s lunkheaded hulk of a bodyguard (he loves comic books so he can’t be all bad) injures his shoulder trying to smash through the force field as Bill demonstrates it for the criminal duo.

The idea a high school teacher, even one as talented and dedicated as Andrea Thomas, could create a force field device-- much less power it with uranium pellets-- is ridiculous, of course.  If Andrea Thomas really does have the know-how to produce a hand-held force field generator, she’s wasting her time teaching chemistry at Larkspur High School.  She needs to be at Fermilab or the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.  There’s a Nobel in her future!

But we have to overlook that because the Circle Guard is merely a macguffin that gets us to the crux of the episode-- Bill's choice between right and wrong.  Wrong offers immediate rewards, right offers immediate punishment. All Bill has to do is activate the force field that will prevent the goddess from capturing the two criminals and he can have a different car for every day of the week.  Isis boldly encourages Bill  to make up his own mind.  No threats, no violence.  Just that goddess-like poise as she saunters into the forest clearing.  "It's a big decision, isn't it, Bill?  Maybe you ought to think about it for a moment before you make it.  Because once you do," Isis tells him, "there's no turning back."

Decent people like Bill sometimes make stupid, rash mistakes from momentary weakness or anger, but these don't have to define them for a lifetime.  And unlike, say, Batman's violent and arrogant presumption he has to beat everyone into correctness-- granted, it's in the face of an aggressively cynical strawman argument that the world is lousy enough to require him-- it's not Isis's job to take away from people the ability to make these choices.  Instead, she gently nudges them, then steps aside.  The show wraps these moments in the trappings of superheroics and magic, but the real secret of Isis is the show isn't really about Isis.  It's only occasionally about Cindy Lee.  It's really about the Bills of the world, the true heroes of their own lives if they wish to be.

A clever touch comes when the show re-works the denouement of the famous “Do you feel lucky punk?” scene from Dirty Harry into a nicey-nice kid-vid moment.  Curious to the last, Bill asks Isis if the force field really did stop her and could he have escaped by pressing the button, just like the bank robber “gots to know” if Harry Callahan has fired his last bullet or not.  And Isis, with a knowing smile, obliges him.

The uranium leak proves to be something of a red herring.  It’s referenced exactly once during the climactic chase and in the end, turns out not to have had an effect on anything other than Rick Mason’s photo negatives.  Despite Ms. Thomas’s—and Isis’s—apparent health and public safety concerns, Bill uses the Circle Guard approximately a million times without any ill effects.  Other than falling and breaking his ankle while trying to escape through some woods with Evans and Jocko.

Speaking of Jocko (Wayne Storm), the guy is hilarious.  He won’t stop calling Evans “Boss,” despite being asked and while holding Ms. Thomas captive—in a child-safe sort of way; even without her ample resources (and Tut's interference) she’s never in any danger—he gruffly offers her a “funny book” to read.  That’s probably his way of playing nice.

As for the Circle Guard itself?  Well, it’s just a metal box.  It looks like some kind of off-the-shelf electronic equipment you’d find at a Radio Shack and features some dials and switches, plus what looks like a telescoping radio antenna on the side for some reason.  But my favorite feature is one of those analog rolling odometers like on your grandparents’ 1973 Caprice Classic.  What the heck do those numbers mean?  Objects repelled?  Kids helped to catharsis by Isis?  Number of times Cindy Lee has risked death?

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