Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Secrets of Isis Episode 8: "How to Find a Friend"

Let me tell you, if anyone needs a lesson in how to find a friend it's Tom Anderson.  He's creeping everyone out and causing concern for teachers like Andrea Thomas and Rick Mason.  Mr. Mason even refuses to take Tom along on a field trip the local botanical gardens, which is sure to break the kid's heart because he's so into the rich fragrances of various flowers, especially the way they relate to all-natural herbal shampoos and conditioners.

The lucky kid gets to attend Larkspur High where not only are there caring adults but also a dirtbike track adjacent to the campus where he can go during class hours.  Maybe it's a PE class or something:  Intro to Dirtbiking.  Tom tries to trade his father's war souvenir-- some kind of generic-looking revolver-- for a ride on an older boy's mini-bike.  It doesn't work out and a poor car headlight pays the ultimate price.  Now there's a reckless gun-thief on the loose with a pistol that will probably explode in his hand the next time he tries to fire it.  And that's the best case scenario, because he could just as easily knock over a liquor store or go on a shooting spree.  His name is Joe, and what he really wants to do is kill some rabbits.  And possibly eat them.  Cooked, I hope.  Looks like Isis has a life-threatening crisis on her hands and what follows is a tense race against time...

It would be easy to pick the low hanging fruit (to use a phrase that seems to be popular these days) and mock this week's guest star and his connection to The Brady Bunch.  Easy, but unfair because erstwhile Bobby Brady Mike Lookinland does a credible job with his goofily-written character.  Whatever else The Brady Bunch happened to be-- I consider it kitschy TV sitcom dreck-- it featured a cast of professionals from the grown-ups down to the youngest kids.  It's obvious Lookinland has outgrown his Brady cuteness (kid has a magnificent head of mid-70s style wavy hair, though), but he brings a polish to each scene he's in.  As young as he is in this episode, he was already an old hand, a seasoned pro and Lookinland delivers his lines with conviction and believability.  Another winning guest star performance for Isis.

While playing a weirdo.  Tom isn't the worst kid in the world.  He just has some severe personality problems and is way too eager to make friends.  Witness his hasty attempt to jump several weeks of relationship time during his ill-fated attempt at befriending Joe, otherwise known as the "yellow mini-bike/rabbit hating guy."  Later, after losing a race (someone finally let him ride a bike) with Cindy Lee as the judge, Tom angrily accuses the most honest and kind-hearted student at Larkspur of cheating in favor of his rival.  I mean anyone who would shout at Cindy Lee-- of all people-- is in real need of counseling.  One can only hope at the episode's end he'll get the help he needs.

Here's a rare Isis episode where the stakes are truly high.  This isn't a contrived situation where someone's stolen some imaginary device that leaks radiation or another class outing where Cindy Lee or one of her classmates gets a foot stuck in some rocks while running from a bear or a gorilla.  Kids watching Isis would never in a million parallel universes of probability find themselves in such straits, but in the United States guns were and remain plentiful.  They're attractive and exciting.  "Friend" doesn't attempt to demonize guns or gun ownership by any means, just to instill a healthy respect for the dangers inherent in handling them, a lesson my gun-owning father worked hard to impress on me from an early age.    I'm sure Isis would agree with my dad-- guns are not toys.  Especially not old ones of uncertain provenance.  "How to Find a Friend" benefits not only from its hard-biting lesson but also suspenseful race-against-time plotting-- kind of reminds me of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode "Bang!  You're Dead" (directed by the master himself) where the little boy in a cowboy hat finds a real pistol and we follow him around while we wait for the explosive finale.

Director Hollingsworth Morse isn't exactly a Hitchcock and Isis as a low-budget kid show had to burn throw a lot of set-ups in a day (which means plenty of two-shots and the like rather than complex point-of-view shots) but use of foreshadowing provides a level of suspense beyond Isis's usual offerings.  Because the show needs a positive ending, it can only take us a few baby steps towards a violent or tragic outcome (as far as I know, Lucky the dog is the only character who actually dies in an episode), and once again we see in the Isis world, there are few truly bad people.  The worst you can say about Joe (Tommy Norden, who played Bud Ricks on Flipper-- another old trouper!) is he shows poor judgement.  Even he comes to realize that and all is well once again.

But yelling at Cindy Lee?  Now that's what I consider unforgivable, man.

A few little observations--   This is the second episode (maybe third) in a row Cindy Lee wears those infamous baby blue overalls, which we first see as she greets Mason in the opening scene.  It's Ms. Thomas's birthday and they've bought her a cake.  Thomas's favorite?  Chocolate, of course.  Tut likes it, too.  Crafty Mason invites Thomas out for a birthday dinner-- but she has to agree to handle his sixth period class with troublesome Tom while he takes the rest on the field trip.  Cutler gets to clown around a bit in this scene, even breaking out a very nice Arte Johnson-doing-his-German-accent impression.  But what made me laugh the hardest this episode is the follow-up scene where Cindy Lee comes back with a birthday bouquet for Thomas and the teacher jokingly asks her if she picked them at the botanical gardens.  Cindy gives her a completely sincere, "No!  On the way back!" response.  Sometimes I get the idea both Thomas and Mason like to tease credulous Cindy by asking her silly questions just to find out how she'll reply.

Another neat moment:  Mason reports he's more than likely walked through poison oak.

"You're a science teacher and you don't even know what poison oak looks like?" Thomas razzes him.

"Yeah, it looked very pretty," Mason replies.  "I was going to pick you a bouquet."  He cracks himself up.

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