Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Secrets of Isis Episode 5: "Rockhound's Roost"

Kevin, a surly, lazy jerk, dislikes Fabian, the geology-loving (he also loves "everything in America, especially hamburgers and baseball," so right away I'm on his side) exchange student who also happens to be the prince of an unnamed African nation.  Why?  No reason; Kevin hates everything, especially chores.  To get out of doing some yard work, he forges his dad's name on a permission slip and joins Andrea Thomas's class on a field trip to Rockhound's Roost, the bear-infested park that's supposedly way out in the wilderness somewhere but features a busy street visible just beyond its trees.  Rick Mason and Ms. Thomas have their suspicions about Kevin's motives, which prove valid when Thomas catches the kid tossing the picnic dishes into the stream instead of washing them.  Things come to a head when Mr. Mason calls the school and learns of Kevin's deceit.  Kevin rashly runs away, pursued by a concerned Fabian.  Lurking nearby-- a hungry bear, desperate to protect its honey tree!

"Rockhound's Roost," which aired October 4, 1975, is the show's first outright dud.  It's preachy and heavy-handed in ways previous episodes haven't been, and its lesson is a snoozer-- yet Kevin's dad and Fabian both manage to lay it on us, using almost the exact same phrase.  Your responsibilities have a way of catching up with you.  Once again Isis is on hand merely to reinforce what Kevin learns through hard-won experience.  But over-emphasis on the moral isn't the fatal misstep here.  Because "Roost" features as its climax the least convincing bear attack since that episode of Help!... It's the Hair Bear Bunch where they have an acid flashback to the day they mauled those cops in Haight-Ashbury back in '67.  Really, a bear costume?   A bear suit is the only thing more ridiculous than an ape suit, and this one is particularly bad.  Always a mistake, and one from which this episode never recovers.

Thomas Carter as Fabian has a winning smile and maintains his fake accent well enough, but he's hamstrung by a lot of "In my country..." dialogue.  His character is vaguely reminiscent of just about every prince or princess who ever went out among the commoners in a TV sitcom.  Steven Paul as the troublesome Kevin really seems to lack conviction in the early going, which probably accounts for his character's lethargy.  Playing a moody jerk is no easy task.  Too far in one direction and the audience despises you and doesn't buy or care much about your eventual redemption.  Too far in the other and what's the point of the story?  It may be the plodding script that does him in, but it doesn't help that his performance is eerily similar to Hayden Christensen's in the Star Wars prequels.  They're sound-alikes anyway, with the same flat delivery.  By the time Kevin does his about-face becomes likable, we're already in bear country and he's fatally upstaged by the ridiculous bear.

Brian Cutler touched on this in his interview on the Isis DVD, but this episode is a perfect example of how the show acted as a starting point for a lot of youngsters who went on to successful careers both in front of and behind the camera.  Carter acted in 37 episodes of TV's The White Shadow and later directed multiple outings of Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, Amazing Stories and the critically-lauded miniseries A Year in the Life, plus theatrical features like Coach Carter and Save the Last Dance.  He's a three-time Emmy winner as a director and producer and a 6-time nominee.  While he was one of many producers on the Nicholas Cage Ghost Rider and its sequel, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, Paul's major contribution to world cinema is as director of Slapstick (Of Another Kind) starring Jerry Lewis and Madeline Kahn, perhaps the single most bizarre adaptation of a Kurt Vonnegut novel we're ever likely to see.

We're not talking prestige projects here, but Paul's got some lengthy producing credits, mostly of family-oriented fare with titles like The Karate Dog.  He's apparently taking the reins of the Baby Geniuses franchise-- yes, it's a franchise now, in that they're completed a new entry in the series and are hard at work on numbers four and five-- from the late Bob Clark.

According to the IMDB, Paul bought his own building in Century City and "has a full bar in his office."  Okay, no joke-- I'm officially impressed.

Brian Cutler's Rick Mason becomes more and more interesting, with each episode adding little facets to his character.  The premiere didn't give him much to work with, just simple declarative statements for the most part.  But part of the fun of Isis is watching Cutler get into a groove as his character become the show's understated comedic relief.  He never plays Mason as a clown, but he gets in a zinger or two here and there.  Mason's the kind of teacher who doesn't mind farming for corn and chuckling at his own jokes.  But he turns serious and capable in a crisis.  Cutler may not transform into a hero, but he's obviously comfortable in the role of male Lois Lane at this point.

In fact, by now the show has developed consistent good chemistry among the lead trio.  Joanna Cameron continues to rock (get it?) her dual role even when faced with the horrific Ursus arctos horribilis.  You have to give her mad respect for maintaining her dignity during that sequence, which features a ring of fire that's all too obviously artificial, but proves effective at holding the slow-moving (possibly dying from some kind of ursine motor-neuron disease from the looks of it) bear at bay.  Joanna Pang as Cindy Lee is a total charmer as class spokesperson.  Literally.  Not a single classmate besides the two guest stars has so much as a single line of dialogue, leaving Cindy to do all the heavy lifting in the background.  "Don't worry, gang," Mason tells the class as he dashes off with Thomas to find that dick Kevin, "We'll get out in the field yet."

"You know what, gang?" Cindy says as soon as the teachers are out of earshot and her classmates gather around her to listen.  "I am worried!"
But the most amazing thing about this episode has to be Rick Mason's kick ass rayon-- you know, art silk-- shirt, the one he wears on the field trip.  What is that print?  Is it simply abstract, or is it some kind of an animal/peacock feather thing?  Whatever it is, it is happening.  It is 70s gold!  Fabian's dashikis are pretty cool, too.  I've always loved dashikis.  I've never worn one because I've never felt it would be culturally appropriate, but yeah.

As long as we're on this costuming kick, in her DVD interview Joanna Pang poked a little fun at Cindy Lee's light blue overalls and now I understand why.  It's not that she looks bad in them; she's cute as a bug.  It's that she wears them practically in every episode.  They're on fine display here, both in the classroom and in the forest.

Winner of the coveted "Costume of the Episode" prize goes to the poor stuntperson in that threadbare bear suit.  This is one of those times when cutting the already minuscule budget would have been a good idea.  "Hey, I don't think we can afford the top quality bear suit rental, but we can get this shoddy one for less because the last person to wear it died of the bubonic plague."  "Oh, that's too bad.  Bears and Isis just don't mix.  Let's come up with some other form of jeopardy for Kevin and Fabian... one that doesn't look quite so tacky."

Maybe they actually did try to rent a trained animal performer, but if they'd been thinking straight the producers would have realized a third act re-write was really in order.  Fabian gets his ankle caught conveniently in some rocks-- ironic, eh?-- and Kevin taunts the lethargic bear with a handful of what's supposed to be honey (should have used Post Super Sugar Crisp cereal instead) from about a foot away.  Ask Timothy Treadwell if that's such a good idea.  Of course with this particular bear, the biggest danger is being overcome by the twin menace of mothball fumes and the unbearable odor of the sloppily sweating stuntperson inside.

For those of you in the audience who are actual rock hounds-- you do get some rock lore here, but it's not going to help you pass that geology test.  Ms. Thomas fills us in on obsidian, Cindy Lee marvels at various stones, and Kevin's dad-- who earlier bonded with Fabian over the young fellow's rock collection-- teaches his son and the viewers at home the recipe for granite.

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