Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Secrets of Isis Episode 19: "The Cheerleader"

Laurette Spang, who would go on to place "socialator" (original series Battlestar Galactica-speak for "sex worker") Cassiopeia, stars as the titular cheerleader in "The Cheerleader" (October 2, 1976) and she's up to no good.

What is it that makes Spang's character, the blandly-named Ann, so awful?  How about cheating on a test, for starters?  You know neither Cindy Lee nor Rennie Carol would dream of doing such a thing.  And not only does she cheat, she nearly murders Tut in order to do so.  Ann brings hell to Larkspur High when she finds out good grades aren't enough to win the coveted "first girl" spot on the cheerleading squad, a position currently held by her friend Gwen.  Furthering her villainy, Ann then frames Gwen as the cheater and spreads rumors about her academic dishonesty.  Ann does all this because, as Gwen wisely explains, she wants everything but isn't willing to work for it.  But work she does, and hard!  It takes effort to come up with these nefarious schemes and carry them out.

For thousands of years, throughout recorded history, society has viewed cheerleaders as emissaries of dark forces, of evil.  Ann epitomizes this outlook and if one hopes Isis might avoid trading in such benighted stereotypes-- well, the problem there is Spang is just too good at playing bad.  She's my favorite of the Larkspur High jerk students and whether she's luring Tut to his doom in order to trick Rennie Carol or buttering up cheer captain Tom (Danil Torppe, whose television career seems to have ended abruptly in 1998 after a role on Saved by the Bell: The New Class) for Gwen's position, Spang is a joy to watch as Ann.  Perhaps I've been programmed by the patriarchy, but there's just something deliciously alluring about a wicked cheerleader, especially one played to the hilt by Spang.  It's as if she materialized out of an early script draft of Brian DePalma's Stephen King adaptation Carrie.  Spang plays her turnaround sincerely and convincingly, too.  A darker Isis might have ended with a hint Ann is only faking.  After all, you could build a pretty good case for this kid being completely sociopathic.  But since we're allowed to dwell at length on how Ann faces up to the consequences, it comes across as an unambiguously happy ending.

Yeah, Spang is a delight, but "The Cheerleader" also gifts us with none other than Colleen Camp as Gwen.  While Camp didn't appear in Battlestar Galactica as a sex worker like Spang, she did play a Playboy playmate in Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979), with extended scenes in the "Redux" version.  They probably should have been left out a second time because they're ham-handed in their comedic intent, involving her character and Frederick Forrest's high-strung Chief having bird-inspired sex inside a helicopter while none other than Lawrence Fishburne pounds on the window and demands his turn.

Camp's career continues to this day, with parts in the ever-popular Wayne's World, plus dreck like a couple of the Police Academy sequels (where she at least got to play Tackleberry's wife, which is something) and Alexander Payne's instant classic Election (as Tracy Flick's mom, a role that must have given her flashbacks to this episode of Isis).  Camp also made her movie debut in an uncredited role as "Julie, Lisa's Servant" in Battle for the Planet of the Apes.  Quite a spread there, huh?  No one can ever accuse The Secrets of Isis of depriving you of young actors with diverse resumes.

Enough movie trivia digressions.  Isis makes her requisite two appearances in this episode, including the standard student rescue at the end.  But it's the first that features one of the most effective visual effects so far on the show.  Ann uses a snack to draw Tut out of the science lab so she can send Rennie Carol on a wild crow chase.  Tut injures his wing and ends up in a field where what appears to be a German Shepherd dyed gray to resemble a wolf tries to eat him.  Isis shows up just in time to magically make the wolf or dog disappear, then scoops up Tut and makes the wolf-dog re-appear.  It's done with one of the oldest special effects there is-- stopping the camera, removing the dog, starting the camera again.  Only the Isis team mattes the goddess into the foreground almost seamlessly, allowing her to move and interact with Tut and masking the simple camera trick.  There's a little bit of fuzz on the Isis element because she's probably a video element and the background is chromakeyed, but not enough to detract from the magic.

The second Isis appearance involves Ann being chased by her own car.  The how and why is pretty stupid.  When Ann doesn't get her cherished first girl position despite all her efforts, she speeds off in her convertible.   Concerned she's going to injure herself, everyone gives chase.  For reasons known but to Ann she decides to jump out of her still-running car and run into a field.  The car follows and it's up to Isis to levitate Ann out of its path.  Director Hollingswood Morse (he helmed all the best episodes, by the way) frames this as a panoramic wide shot, giving the climax an epic look.  We just never learn what Ann's trying to accomplish with this stunt.

Notes:  Andrea Thomas is certainly no fool.  She's onto Ann almost from the beginning.  Unlike, say, this particular viewer, Ms. Thomas doesn't see Ann as bad, just misguided.  Even Gwen and Tom, the subjects of Ann's malice, are sympathetic.  No one thinks to consult Tut for his feelings.

This episode features a jaunty little synth score, perhaps influenced by the video games like Space Invaders and Pong that were becoming popular at the time.  It sounds kind of like someone playing a Casio keyboard with one finger, but it's super catchy and even now it's still stuck in my head.  Quite the ear worm.

Larkspur High's cheerleading team is more of a tumbling team than anything else.  There are only five members and their routine seems to consist solely of somersaulting off a springboard onto a mat while Tom shouts encouragement.  How is this supposed to spur the team onto victory?  I'm not going to take up the "cheerleading is a sport/not a sport" debate here, but it seems Larkspur High could benefit from hiring a dedicated cheer coach.  Or at least someone who can teach the kids some chants.  They can work their way up to pyramids and hand stands later.

Rennie Carol's position at the school comes into doubt again.  Student or teaching assistant?  Here she spends the first part of the episode carefully typing up test answers for Ms. Thomas.  We see her in another episode studying with a classmate, so she must be one trustworthy person.  I'm guessing she's in a higher level science class than the one Ann and Gwen take, especially when the answers to the test seem to be so basic.

And also scattershot.  What kind of test features Marie Curie as one answer, then CO2 as another?  If they're studying carbon dioxide, it stands to reason the rest of the test would be about drawing molecules or the periodic table.  But if they're studying Marie Curie, they should have a concentration on radiation.  Right?  I'm no science teacher (I'm barely an English teacher), but Ms. Thomas's test just seems random to me.

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