Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Secrets of Isis Episode 13: "Girl Driver"

The Larkspur High Car Club is holding its election for club president, and this time out it's highly controversial.  Why?  Because a girl is in the running!  Even though Frederica "Freddie" Charleton works at her dad's auto repair shop and really seems to know her stuff she can't get any respect from her male rival Mac Lennard.  After an accident that almost destroys the shop (both Freddie and Mac are to blame, at least according to Isis), the two become intractable enemies. Ms. Thomas, Mr. Mason and Cindy Lee talk them into competing in a rally to determine the better auto expert.  Mac is so determined not to lose to a girl he's willing to cheat to win, but when his little stunt puts his life in danger, a woman has to save him.  And that woman is none other than First Lady Betty Ford.

Just kidding.  It's actually Billy Jean King.  Cher.  Okay, okay, it's Tatum O'Neal.  Kristy MacNichol.  Evonne Goolagong.  Or Isis.  They're all great, so take your pick. As we've just seen in the 2012 presidential election, few things cause arguments as much as politics, even politics within a high school club.  And gender politics are still very much in play-- witness the gender divide in single women voting for Barack Obama versus Mitt Romney.  So while the whole "women's lib" movement and the Equal Rights Amendment were hot button topics back in the mid-1970s (seems like every sitcom did some variation on the "let's bet to see whose life is more challenging/women on strike" plots), the underlying concerns still bear addressing.  We've made progress, but in today's highly polarized United States, retrogressive types press their attack and hope to reverse all those hard-won gains.

"Girl Driver," its title a deliberate reference to any number of jokes and stupid cartoons about women and their supposed lack of driving skill aired on November 29, 1975, and uses its mild pro-feminist message as something of a red herring.  The lesson it really teaches is that cheating is wrong, and if you cheat, you'll probably get a nail in your tire and end up plunging off a ten-thousand foot cliff in your car, with only an Egyptian goddess to perch proudly on the hood and save you with gusts of wind.  Secondary to that is that men and women need to cooperate, especially in moving fallen telephone poles out of the road to a brighter future for us all.

Played with polish by Steve Doubet, Mac starts off seemingly a fairly good-natured guy, despite his frequent disparaging comments about Freddie's mechanical skills.  When the justifiably offended Freddie angrily declares him a "chauvinist pig," he laughs it off with an easy-going, "That's me!  Oink oink."  He's even quick to shout a warning when a gas spill outside the garage catches fire.  Not that yelling, "Watch out!  If those drums ignite, this whole place will blow up!" particularly helps anyone.  But he quickly turns creepy and alarmingly rage-fueled, first challenging Freddie to a dangerous drag race, then pulling his little trick during the rally.  Luckily he's already softening his stance even before his brush with death.

This leads to an amazing scene where Mac's car swerves off the road and over the cliff, with a close-up of his horrified face as he falls down... down... down... I mean really, they must have held this rally in the Himalayas.  Then Isis swoops in and poses goddess-like on the car's hood while saving Mac.  It involves another chromakey shot but at least they're trying something new.  I can't help but remember the scene in The Blues Brothers when the stationwagon of Illinois Nazis flies off the overpass construction which apparently wasmeant to allow drive-through access to the top floor of the Sears Tower.

Speaking of girl drivers, is that Cindy Lee behind the wheel at the episode's start, chauffeuring Andrea Thomas around and talking a mad streak about the car club election?  Why, it is!  According to Joanna Pang in her Isis DVD interview, she couldn't really drive a stick shift at the time, so it wasn't the easiest scene to shoot.  My dad was a stickler for teaching my brothers and me how to drive standard transmission.  "Learn to drive standard and you can drive almost anything.  Learn just automatic, and you're limited in emergencies." I'm sure Freddie would agree.

Susan Lawrence takes this role, and she's more than a match for Doubet.  They have a nice bickering chemistry that makes their scenes together work better than a Saturday morning children's show really deserves, but then Isis always seems to do right with its guest stars.  The performances are sometimes a bit broad, but these shows shot fast and there probably wasn't time for a lot of character building.  Casting well solves most problems, and Filmation must have hired a crackerjack casting director for their shows.

Both Lawrence and Doubet are typical of the Isis guests, capable pros with extensive 1970s resumes featuring guest appearances on various sitcoms and hour-long dramas, their careers petering out in the 1980s.  Not everyone can be a Debralee Scott.  Lawrence played a Horshack relative on Welcome Back, Kotter and became a regular on the Dr. Shrinker live-action show, one of those Sid  and Marty Krofft joints you half-believe you dreamed while running a high fever.  She also appeared on two episodes of Mork and Mindy.  Doubet knocked around a little longer, doing time on soap operas like Days of Our Lives and General Hospital, turning up twice on The Love Boat, once on Dynasty and even landing a one-time spot on Trapper John, M.D. as "Reporter #2."  I wonder if he and Christopher Norris bonded over their Isis appearances.

Notes-- Once again, Cindy Lee acts as the faculty's girl-on-the-inside, just full of juicy and helpful tidbits of info on her classmates.  Some might call her a gossip, but I believe it's just because she's so involved in student life. Larkspur High is everything to that crazy kid.  She's also safety conscious.  When Mac's insulting challenge to a drag race proves more than Freddie can stand, it's a quick-thinking Cindy Lee who cools her jets and prevents her from making a serious mistake.

Dr. Barnes makes damn sure the two contestants know a rally is not the same as a race, but a test of accuracy.  Isis's concern-- beyond Mac's safety-- is getting the two enemies to learn to cooperate. I think that's a noble thing, and we could all learn a thing or two from the wise goddess.  Mac's conversion at the end is earned more than Carrie Anson's from the previous episode-- after all, we watched that guy plummet almost to his death.  It's amazing he can even function after such a thing, but there he is, offering not only his hand in congratulations, but his vote for Freddie as club president.  Another heartwarming turnabout for The Secrets of Isis.

It wouldn't be a 70s TV show without some awesome outfits.  Cindy breaks out her adorable "having fun in the sun" patchwork outfit for the rally, but early in the episode she rocks some mighty jeans.  Dr. Barnes sports a sweet denim jacket ensemble, but Rick Mason wins the couture award for this episode with his sweet blue print shirt.  Of course it's hard to argue with Andrea Thomas's short shorts.  Oink oink.

 Finally, this must be southern California, because all these kids drive convertibles.

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