Monday, October 1, 2012

The Secrets of Isis, October is Spookey Month Edition featuring Episode 6: "Lucky"

Randy Martin is crazy about his canine pal Lucky.  And why not?  Lucky loves Randy right back in that special unconditional way dogs do.  The pair show up at Larkspur High one afternoon to play fetch and bring good luck to Larkspur High's baseball... or softball... team (the episode doesn't quite make it clear, and either way, just last week it was the height of football season so something screwy's going on) and join the high school kids on the beach for a pre-game party.  Some of the guys from rival Central High show up and there's some good-natured trash talk back and forth, but things take a tragic turn when one of the guys tosses a ball for Lucky to fetch and the dog goes into the raging Pacific Ocean.  Randy tries to save his dog, Isis rescues them both, but it's too late for Lucky.  The dog was just too old and its heart couldn't take the strain.

Angry at the world for robbing him of his best friend, Randy seeks solace at a local dam just before a water pressure test.  When he drops Lucky's collar-- a melancholy keepsake-- onto some jagged rocks down in the spillway, the unhappy boy tries to retrieve it, only to catch his ankle.  Trapped with only a minute or two before thousands of gallons of water comes rushing his way.  It's Isis in a race against the raging flood for Randy's life!

Hold up a second.  Before we review the episode let's address this whole "getting your foot caught" business.  Something like this happens in almost every story.  Since the show eschews most superhero violence (Isis tosses some tires and levitates a car; that's about as intense as it gets), there aren't a lot of bad guys running around with ropes and chains to bind their victims so Isis can come to the rescue.  And a lot of times, the jeopardy the characters find themselves in-- chased by car thieves, menaced by a diseased bear, or simply about to be washed away by a torrential dam release-- would be fairly easy to escape but for an injury of some kind.  The show specifically targets its characters' ankles almost to a fetishistic extent.  It just never tires of the ol' ankle-in-the-rock gag.  In this case, Randy just falls behind a large rock and starts screaming bloody moider.

It would be comic, but actor John Doran turns out to be preternaturally skilled at conveying pain and fear.  For a moment I was convinced some hidden creature had ripped his foot completely off.  Couple that with the recent loss of his dog and some all-too-believable angry crying scenes, and you've got one poor little guy having a crappy day.

"Lucky" is a strong episode, one that tackles the ultimate issue:  Death.  Nothing is so serious as death, and as a subject, death encompasses all others.  You can imagine quite a few young viewers knew the confusion and pain accompanying the loss of a beloved pet or even a family member.  Parents often struggle with how to tell their children about death and come up with a lot of confusing euphemisms, which generally just confuse the kids.  Most kid-vid offerings stay well away from this subject.

Not Isis.  Rather than sidestep it or cop out, Isis confronts death in a straightfoward, honest way.  When a tearful Randy asks Isis why Lucky had to die, she simply tells him, "It was time."

"Couldn't you save him?" Randy asks.

"No," she replies.

Isis explains no one has that power.  It's a hard-hitting moment, and leads to a short speech on the cycle of life compassionately delivered by Joanna Cameron.  It's her finest moment of the series so far, especially when you consider she delivers this monologue while wearing faux Egyptian jewelry and a skimpy minidress outfit to portray a superhero.

This scene also gives the show a chance to introduce a new Isis power-- the gem she wears on her forehead can project images into a person's mind.  It's nice to visualize the episode's lesson, and all it takes is a simple superimposition trick.  Isis ties Lucky's death to everyone's, but also makes the case that death is necessary so life can continue-- we are born, we grow, we grow old, we die and we return to the earth to nourish a new cycle of growth.  This is nature's way and no superhero, even one endowed with the powers of the earth, sky and water, can alter this simple fact.

Another well played scene features Cutler and Pang.  Thomas takes the call from the vet, her expression changes and everyone knows it's the worst possible news without her having to tell them.  At first I wanted to chalk it up to the script trying to soft-sell the moment-- and given the workings of network standards and practices, there may have been a deal by which Isis could use the word "death" only a certain number of times in the episode-- but fine performances all around make underplaying the scene the best choice.  I can't help but compare this to what's largely considered the worst of Star Trek, "Spock's Brain," where the pivotal moment goes for broke and devolves into high camp, or the now infamous "Walker says I have AIDS" moment from Walker, Texas Ranger.  There's a right way and a wrong way to break news and guess who gets it right.

Working from an especially strong script by Ann Udell, director Hollingsworth Morse (an old-school pro who helmed episodes of practically every TV show from the 1950s to the 1980s, the Arthur Digby Sellers of Isis) elicits some very effective performances from regulars and guest stars alike.  Most importantly from Doran, who carries the show and brings a believability to his role the bereaved dog owner.  He could easily have proven obnoxious during the scenes where he's crying and lashing out bitterly at the Central High guy who tossed the fatal ball, but instead he's pitch-perfect.  Roles dried up for the guy as they tend to do for kid actors, but not long after this job he portrayed Our Gang legend (and future Perry White impersonator) Jackie Cooper in the TV movie Rainbow, opposite Broadway's first Annie, a badly-miscast Andrea McArdle as Judy Garland, directed by none other than Cooper himself.  That's a pretty strong endorsement.

You know, when Cooper was a lad they used to make him cry on cue by threatening to kill his dog.  Just thought I'd throw that out there.

I really enjoy any scene with Rick Mason.  Cutler opens the episode with both Doran and Lucky, breaking W.C. Fields's famous maxim about working with children and dogs.  It's subtly expository as we learn about Randy's big brother (a Larkspur alumnus and well-known to Mason and Thomas) and the bond between boy and canine, but mostly it's just fun.  Plus, for an added bonus we find out Rick Mason had a dog of his own as a boy, but didn't have Randy's knack for training.  Cutler has a hilarious bit of business when Randy talks him into tossing the ball to Lucky and the teacher tries to get out of it, can't, then does it awkwardly.  The guy's trying, he really is and you get a sense his heart is in the right place, but he isn't lying-- Rick Mason probably just isn't that great with animals.  The show relies on Cutler to bring a light touch to various scenes and it's just so darn hard not to like the guy and his character.

And look at that awesome black and white checked sport coat.

But once again, the ever-reliable Pang as Cindy Lee has some of the funniest moments in what's generally a heavy-duty episode.  While Randy discusses the importance of chemistry to would-be veterinarians with Ms. Thomas, Cindy tries to lure Lucky for a race.  What is it with Cindy and racing?  Bikes, dogs, UFOs.  There's nothing that kid won't challenge to a contest of speed.  Lucky is too old and too obedient to give in, though, and Thomas informs Cindy he's a "one man dog."  Cindy then introduces the lucky charm/baseball story element and she and Randy end up sharing a soul shake over Larkspur's chances against Central High.  That's right--  Cindy Lee does a soul shake.

Later, during what passes for a crowd scene on the Isis budget, she spots some dudes walking up the beach.  "It's the guys from Central High!" she shouts with probably more enthusiasm than the moment warrants.  But that's Cindy Lee all over.  She's the show's incarnation of niceness.  She happily waves at these rivals and it turns out they're not there to cause trouble.  A lesser show would have featured these Central High guys as villains; on Isis, they're portrayed as genuinely nice guys who show up to have some good natured fun.  They even give Randy a new dog at the end of the episode-- although Central High spokesperson Glen takes some of the saccharine edge off by insisting Central will cream Larkspur anyway.

I may have mentioned this before, but Joanna Cameron was amazingly fit during her time as Isis.  Her miniskirt costume is practically chaste compared to what your modern-day women supers wear, but it displays her toned arms and legs to great effect.  I also want to point out that Joanna Pang as Cindy Lee looks simply amazing in her short culottes/mini-dress outfit on the beach.  It's easy to see why Glen and his Central High buddies "just happened" to be strolling along the beach that day.

Now that we're on the topic of death and dying, reading E.B. White's Charlotte's Web would be a good follow-up to any viewing of "Lucky."  And a viewing of 1982's Peabody-award winning The Electric Grandmother TV movie, too.  You know, the adaptation of Ray Bradbury's I Sing the Body Electric with Maureen Stapleton as the robotic grandmother who helps a family deal with loss, especially Agatha-Agamemnon.  Death and humanity's varied reactions to it are themes running through a lot of Bradbury's work.  From the Dust Returned deals with this explicitly, as does his 1972 fantasy novel The Halloween Tree.  We can relate this book back to Isis because in The Halloween Tree, Bradbury makes a special effort to show how Egyptian mythology influenced our Halloween revels.  We celebrate mortality in all things autumnal, dark and strange.  Or, in Isis's case, sunshine-infused spring days with Cindy Lee asking a dog for a foot race.

Safety note:  When Isis gingerly makes her way over the loose rocks in the spillway, she appears to have changed from her usual high-heeled boots into some sensible flats. Yet when she and Randy make it to safety, she's once again in those high heels!


Richard Bensam said...

This is one episode of which I have a particularly vivid memory. As it happens, our family dog had died not too long before this aired, so it was a little close to home. Statistically speaking, this was bound to be the case for a certain percentage of kids in the audience; I can't have been alone in that. I even remember having an inkling the episode was going to be about a dog dying before it actually happened -- I couldn't say now if that was because I saw something that tipped me off in advance, or if my early instinct for the rudiments of story structure was that precocious. Either way, I had a feeling what was coming, and it was kind of hard to sit through.

(Not as hard as it was for another member of my family, I will name no names so as not to embarrass her, who was so upset by this episode she vowed never to watch Isis again. And I don't think she ever did.)

I'll watch it again someday, but with some trepidation about the memories it'll bring back, you know?

Joel Bryan said...

Yeah, I can imagine! It's one of those truly traumatic childhood events almost everyone goes through. A grandparent dies, a dog dies, parents divorce. And for a TV show like this to address it so starkly is remarkable. But I have a feeling your anonymous family member isn't alone in that vow.

You know, if the main kid had been a lousy actor, this episode could have been completely campy. Instead, it really brings the pain.