Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Secrets of Isis Episode 9: "The Show Off"

Little Steve Elwood has a Napoleonic complex which leads him to take dangerous chances, impressing approximately nobody.  The first time we see him, he's angrily climbed a ladder to hang a banner despite being begged by practically everyone not to.  I suppose he thinks that's the way to make friends-- act contrary, then dangle helplessly from a rooftop until Isis shows up.  And is Steve grateful?  He is not.  He feels humiliated by the goddess' interference.  Later, on the Science Club camping trip, Cindy Lee somehow gets her foot stuck in a bear trap.  She's not hurt, but Steve once again tries to make himself a big man by freeing her.  He fails because he doesn't read the instructions on the trap.  When Andrea Thomas talks to him and he reveals himself as an expert ornithologist, Steve realizes what a fool he's been.  Just in time for an escaped gorilla to trap him in a cave along with Cindy Lee, Rick Mason and another student.

Yes.  An escaped gorilla.

Okay, I thought the bear attack in "Rockhound's Roost" was laughably bad, but Isis reaches its first season nadir in "The Show Off," which aired November 1, 1975-- kind of a late Halloween trick played on its unfortunate fans, but not enough to destroy the show.  The script is full of neat little quips and the Steve Elwood part is fine (plus his last name reminds me of the Blues Brothers, which is never a bad thing unless we're talking Blues Brothers 2000, which we're not and never will), just some standard Isis fare about a troubled student getting himself into problems on his way to maturity.  Where the show goes off the rails is someone in power apparently decided Steve's little dilemma wasn't worthy enough for an entire episode.  Bizarre plot twist time!

Even before we see the gorilla we're already anticipating the horrors of a Saturday-morning ape costume-- shades of the vastly superior Tracy the Gorilla from The Ghost Busters-- but really, this whole thing is completely out of left field.  It's not even foreshadowed, basic Drama 101 stuff.  All you have to do is have some dialogue referencing a circus coming to town, or at some point have the characters listen to a radio report about an escaped gorilla.  They foreshadow Cindy Lee's animal trap misadventure and that hardly takes a minute of storytime to play out to its resolution.  The gorilla is the show's big finale and nada.  Zilch.  Non sequitor.

Really, this could hardly have been more ridiculous if they'd had the gorilla turn out to be female with the hots for Rick Mason and Isis soaring to the rescue before some kind of half-assed ape-human wedding.  It's as if someone spliced together a segment from an ABC Afterschool Special with half an episode of Gilligan's Island.

According to IMDB, Harry "Steve Elwood" Gold had a nice run of guest-starring credits throughout the 70s, a small part in Brian DePalma's 1976 horror classic Carrie and culminating in a 1980 appearance in one of my all-time faves, The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo.  Oh sure, he was apparently in something called First Family after that, but when you've played a bellboy on Lobo, that's like winning the Super Bowl; it's best to bow out while on top.  These days he's an actor's agent, and adopted father to the Gold sisters acting dynasty of Missy and Tracey. He's actually quite good in this episode when not playing the jerk or being menaced by an ape.  When he finally accepts his limitations and comes into his own by relying on things he's actually good at-- identifying those birds, for example-- he's got a shy smile and explains to Ms. Thomas the difference between a crow and a raven in a bright and winning way.

No one should be asked to act opposite a moth-eaten gorilla costume, though.  But even I have to admit the scene where the gorilla's keepers retrieve her and drive off in their jeep is worth the price of admission.  There's just something uniquely attractive about the way the performer waddles while looking like nothing so much as someone thinking, "I left Tulsa for this?  Thank Christ no one's going to see my face."  It's an animal portrayal almost polished enough for a kid's birthday party or a Jaycees haunted house.

The good stuff-- Rick Mason is some kind of freaky pizza gourmand.  When we first see him, he's describing the most wondrous pie to Andrea Thomas:  mushrooms, pepperoni, meatballs, strawberry jam, onions; even Ms. Thomas can't believe it.  He's also planning to turn the Science Club outing into his own personal fishing trip.  When an upset Steve runs off into the woods, Mason can't hide his disgust and lets everyone know he was afraid all along Steve would ruin everything.  Probably because it means less time for fishing and wearing his awesome bright orange fisherman's bucket hat complete with lures pinned to the top.  Tut can knock on doors when he wants to be let into a room.  Cindy Lee gets the biggest (intentional) laugh of the episode with her witty reaction to having her foot caught in the trap.  She tells Steve, "Why don't you just call a ranger so he can tag me and then let me go."  She's wearing the baby blue overalls when she says it, which is always a bonus.  I dig how Joanna Cameron can go from playing the compassionate young teacher in the more naturalistic Steve scenes to maintaining her dignity as the stately Isis even while spouting rhyming couplets at a clod in a gorilla suit.  She's marvelous!

This episode also showcases the show's increasing tendency for plot specific special effects.  Sure they use their handy stock footage of the Isis transformation and a short version of her swirling take-off (minus the "zephyr winds" rhyme), but they also include a short process shot of Isis landing on the school's roof.  It's not necessary, but as a viewer I appreciate they spent a little money this time out.  The chromakey outline around Isis is very obvious, but it probably looked a lot more convincing on yesteryear's Zenith and RCA television sets beaming in via antenna rather than over cable.  DVD and high-def have not been kind to these old shows.

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