There's something about super-hero movies and shows that always gets me—something to do with nostalgia, bright colors and spandex, I expect. I love the best of them, but the worst hold a singular fascination, as there's always such a precipitous drop between concept and execution. A lot of b-grade entertainment fails to live up to its ambitions, but it's hard to imagine a genre that shows that failure quite so starkly. After all, the Hulk should be a physical explosion of repressed rage, not a body-builder in green paint and a bad wig; Reed Richards should be able to stretch and twist himself in ways that boggle the mind, not just trip people with slightly better efficiency. And that gap between aim and achievement doesn't just affect the effects work. Even the best writers can struggle to tell convincing stories around powerful individuals, and when you're working to bring something in under-budget and keep it palatable for Standards and Practices, odds are you aren't going to be too worried about the "convincing" part.
Which brings us to Isis. Originally airing as part of the Shazam/Isis Magic Hour¸ The Secret of Isis ran 22 episodes in the mid-seventies and followed the adventures of high school teacher Andrea Thomas (JoAnna Cameron) and her semi-divine alter-ego. As the opening of each episode informs us, Andrea was on an archaeological dig in Egypt (the show never really pinpoints exactly what Andrea teaches, although if I had to guess, I'd say "Science") when she discovered a box with a spray-painted gold scarab glued to the top; inside the box was a magical amulet, instead of the death curse that any reasonable person would've expected. When worn, the amulet allows Andrea to call on the powers of Isis, goddess of magic, sailors, and pretty much anything necessary to meet story demands.
The problem being, those demands never amount to much. Most every episode of Isis follows the same structure: we see Andrea hanging out with fellow teacher and near love interest Rick Mason (the comfortingly non-threatening Brian Cutler) and student buddy Cindy Lee (the terrifyingly perky Joanna Pang, eventually to replaced by the equally chipper Ronalda Douglas), there's moderate banter, and we're introduced to the troubled teens who will most likely serve as the impetus for this week's woes. Andrea puts on her Isis mini-skirt twice each ep, once at around the ten minute mark, and then again at the climax; her powers revolve around a kicky new wardrobe and hair style, and the ability to ask for the goddess's help through rhyming couplets like "Oh zephyr winds that blow on high/lift me now, so I can fly." By the time we find our way to the end credits, lessons have been learned (friendship, self-respect, knowing your limits, if people make fun of you it’s because you’re pathetic, etc.), conflicts resolved, and the reset button punched for our next big adventure.
Andrea is quick on her feet, rhyming-wise, and you'd think she could devote her time towards fighting against some pretty serious threats. In this, you would be wrong. Isis’s entire run is available on DVD (Shazam remains AWOL, sadly), and I highly recommend it to anyone with a good supply of beer, like-minded friends, and a yen for smug super-hero silliness. To give you a taste of what you’re missing, here are some highlights:
“Spots of the Leopard”
The set-up isn’t too bad; an ex-con is trying to prove he’s reformed to his suspicious daughter, only a corrupt cop is hell-bent on blackmailing the poor guy back into the game. For once we have an actual villain, as opposed to a misunderstanding, and the end even has Isis using her powers to lift up a whole car, which is pretty hardcore. (At least it is for this show.) The silliness comes in during Isis’s first appearance in the episode. Ex-con and daughter are out camping, and the daughter wigs out on her old man and runs off alone into the forest. This is never a good idea in Isis-land—emotion-driven action on the show nearly always has negative consequences—but here the consequences are just embarrassing: in her haste, the daughter trips, falls down a mild incline, and gets her foot trapped under a log. Instead of rolling the log off or, I dunno, lifting it the half-inch needed to get her foot free, our victim whimpers quietly to herself until Isis, who has the power to stop time, comes to her aid.
During a rockfinding field trip (“Come to the park! We have stones!”), two male students wander off to deal with racism, shame, and their post-pubescent bodies. They discover they aren’t that different after all, and to celebrate, they swipe honey from a tree with some really obvious claw marks down the side. While lecturing his friend on the dangers of what they’re doing, one of kids gets his foot stuck in some rocks, and wouldn’t you know it, a bear shows up to go all Goldilocks on both their asses. Isis arrives in time to save the day, creating a ring of fire around the bear before it can start killing folks. This would be pretty cool, if it weren’t for the fact that the “bear” costume looks about as convincing as a bearded shop teacher in a brown sweater. Maybe less so—at least the shop teacher could change his facial expression. Here we’ve got a stunt man in a suit that must’ve been old at the first staging of The Winter’s Tale, complete with easy to distinguish pieces, dead eyes, and a mouth that flops open and closed without regards to the growls on the soundtrack. The best part? Everybody takes the whole thing deadly seriously.
So we’ve had logs and crappy bears; I guess it makes sense that our next threat would be poorly designed ladders. Steve has low self-esteem, and a tendency to over-compensate, so when it’s time to put up a banner for the school science fair, instead of waiting for a teacher to show like a good little boy, he starts climbing himself, getting nearly to the roof before a rung on the ladder snaps and the whole thing collapses. Steve hangs from the eaves for a good five minutes, screaming for help; eventually Isis arrives and pulls him up (for someone with the powers of a goddess, her upper body strength is little lacking), but what makes this scene work so wonderfully is the silent crowd that immediately gathers in the parking lot below our victim. Like the folks in that Ray Bradbury short story, they don’t comment on the action or move to help. They simply watch, and wait. One imagines, had Steve lost his grip and dropped to the pavement below, as the blood flowed from his cracked skull and his spine shifted like a ruler in pudding, the last thing he’d see would be all those wholesome, placid faces, filling his world with darkness. (Which would’ve been a lot better than the ending we got, for sure.)
Steve2 (somebody should’ve bought the writers a book of baby names) is about to get his ass kicked off the scuba diving team for his inattention to safety procedures. (Rick Mason really loses it here; he’s normally about as threatening as mulch, but for some reason, poor diving habits just freak him right the fuck out.) Thankfully not even the producers of Isis were willing to force their audience to wade through a whole episode of underwater tedium, so in order to fill up the twenty minutes we’ll have to wait for Steve2 to get his comeuppance, we have a mountain climbing mishap. Steve2 brings his girl friend Nancy out to find an eagle’s nest, as he wants to be the first person to take pictures of it (oh those wacky daredevil teens!), but when he tries to climb down to get a good look at the nest, his climbing rope snaps. Isis shows up, magically reties the snapped rope, and tosses it down. That’s all well and good, except Isis can fly. She’s carried people before in the series, and Steve2’s hold wasn’t that solid; he could’ve easily fallen while she was going through all the rigmarole of fixing the rope. To add insult to injury, once Steve2’s got the rope again, she doesn’t even pull him back up. Was he late with his protection money this month?
If movies about high school have taught me anything, it’s that cheerleading is a serious, serious business. Isis confirms this; the school team is a place for winners both on and off the field, and Ann is having a hard time keeping up. Her cheering is solid, but her schoolwork is slipping, and if her grades drop any more, she’ll get kicked off the squad. So she does what any reasonable person would do: she steals the answers for a pop quiz, and then tries to frame her competition. (I love how all this stuff seems to happen in a vacuum; every episode, there’s always just the one rotten kid doing mischief, while everybody else acts appalled.) This works out poorly, and after a lot of stupid things happen, Ann somehow manages to wind up running down a hill as her car rolls after her. Isis shows up just as Ann falls, and of all the potential solutions to the immediate problem—stopping time, stopping the car, letting Darwin take over—Isis chooses to throw out a rhyme that lifts Ann ten feet up in the air. The car rolls amiably onward underneath the astonished soon-to-be-ex-cheerleader, Isis brings the girl back to earth, and then she stops the car. Words don’t do the scene justice. It’s like standing on your head just to put your hat on.
The “death” episode can be a rough thing for kid TV. Not every show runs one, but those that do have to find a balance between keeping the family friend tone and making sure a serious issue is presented with the proper weight. So give Isis this much credit—at least they tried. The problem is, for the smarter kids in the room, the message that comes across isn’t exactly the intended one. A bunch of kids are hanging out at the beach, and little Randy’s dog Lucky (really? Why not name him “Neverdie”) goes out for a swim. He gets caught by the undertow, and when Randy goes to save him, Randy gets caught as well. Thankfully, Isis is nearby—but while she gets Randy to the shore in time, Lucky is not so, um, fortunate. There’s a lot of talk about “when it’s your time, it’s your time,” and how death is a natural part of life, and by the end of show, Randy’s moved on and found himself a brand new puppy to play with. The overt moral is very seventies-hippy-ish, and not a bad way of looking at things for all that; but it falls apart when you see Isis actually stopping time later on to save Randy’s life. Anyone that powerful shouldn’t’ve had any problem saving a boy and his dog. (Especially considering how perky Lucky looked during the rescue.) Instead of seeing death as an organic, inevitable thing, we learn a different lesson entirely: that there are rules, and there are powerful people who enforce those rules, and it’s better if you don’t question them too much, because if you do, maybe next time your foot get stuck someplace, you’ll have to figure your own damn way out.
Or maybe we learn that Isis just doesn’t like dogs.