Wednesday, July 6, 2011

TV Review: The Secrets of Isis

In September 1975, CBS launched the Shazam!/Isis Hour, a rare effort (for the 1970s) to air live-action program on Saturday morning, which was given over almost entirely to cartoons at the time.

(American TV in the 1970's was unbelievably rigid. You had cartoons on Saturday morning. You had sports Saturday afternoon. You had church services and panel shows on Sunday morning. You had sports on Sunday afternoon. You had game shows on weekday mornings. You had soap operas on weekday afternoons. You had dramas, sit-coms, and movies in the evenings. You had the news at 6 PM and 10 PM Central time. And then you had Johnny Carson at 10:30 PM. That was pretty much it. Anything that disrupted this pattern -- presidential speeches, telethons, the Miss America Pageant, the Academy Awards -- was a Big Deal. One of the main reasons that people my age have such fond memories of the Baseball All-Star Game is that it was almost much the only time all year that you could see sports on a Tuesday night.)

Anyway, here's how the Shazam!/Isis Hour worked. The first half-hour would feature an episode involving Captain Marvel. Billy Batson, an 11-year-old boy, becomes Captain Marvel by saying the word "Shazam!" Captain Marvel basically has the same powers as Superman, which means he has relatively little problems taking care of any problems that arise. He wandered around California in an RV helping folks. The second half-hour was an episode involving a high school science teacher in California who could become the ancient Egyptian goddess Isis. She did this by throwing up her hands and saying "Oh mighty Isis!" (Followed by a very dramatic echo effect: "Isis! Isis! Isis!") Isis's powers were virtually unlimited -- she could fly, she could talk to animals, she could do magic.

I have no idea what happened to the Captain Marvel episodes, but Netflix has the Isis episodes available for streaming, and I've watched about five of them recently. I think I like them better now than I did in the 1970s. Back then, I just viewed them as a typical piece of fluff to entertain kids. Now I can enjoy them as a period piece. To me, the 1970s are one of the most vivid periods in American history. But if you study great art from the 1970s -- like The Godfather or Born to Run -- you won't really understand what it was like. Great art has a timeless quality that transcends the era in which it was produced. But mediocre art, like The Secrets of Isis, will tell you a lot more about when it was made.

For example, the show is full of all the little obsessions that ran through popular culture at that time. There's a UFO episode (the UFOs are fakes, of course). There's a Bigfoot episode. There's a force field episode (force fields showed up all the time when I was a kid). There's a bunch of stuff about how girls can do anything boys can. If you were there, you will remember all of these themes.

More importantly, the whole show is earnest in a way that literally nothing is in today's culture. Isis is very, very good. She always tells the truth. She always gives solid advice. She never misuses her powers, or even has any doubts about how to use them. She doesn't try to become famous, or rich. She doesn't have a boyfriend, and doesn't go on dates. She never even leaves the generic town where the action takes place. She teaches her chemistry classes, tries to help depressed kids, and resorts to being Isis only when absolutely necessary (each episode features about four minutes worth of Isis). Her only goal is to be a Good Person. That is it.

And her code is very strict. You can't make fun of anyone. You can't skip class. You can't be disrespectful. You do what your parents say. At one point, a daughter is concerned that her dad (an ex-con) may be a thief. Isis tells the girl she has to trust her dad, no matter how guilty he looks. (Of course, he turns out to be totally innocent. The show never generates any suspense, in large part because Isis is so perfect that nothing bad can ever happen.).

To me, Isis's combination of decency and lack of ambition absolutely epitomizes the 1970s. Today we tend to imagine the 1970s as a time of hedonism, but that's not at all what it was like in Paducah and lots of other places in Middle America. Outside of sports, I remember almost no frivolity, or even excitement, in the culture. Americans had tried ambition in the 1960s, and it hadn't worked out. But they also had lost the common sense of morality that dominated the culture in the 1950s. So by 1975 we were just going to be nice to each other, and not do much more. Watching Isis, you can honestly see why Americans were excited to elect Jimmy Carter, and why Carter thought America was ready for his type of by-the-book honesty.

It didn't last, of course. There were only 22 episodes of Isis, the last of which aired in September 1977 (the year Carter took office). And America wasn't ready to settle down and be earnest. By the end of the 1970s, Americans were obsessed with Dallas, a show in which rich people did evil things to gain money and power. And people my age, who had earnestness crammed down our throats as children, have spent their lives supporting any artist -- from David Letterman to Matt Groening to Jerry Seinfeld -- who would indulge our over-developed senses of sarcasm and irony.

There's a lesson in all of this, of course. But you won't find it in The Secrets of Isis.


  1. Excellent! Makes me very happy to remember this show.

  2. They debuted the new Saturday-morning lineups on Sept. 6, 1975.

  3. Here was CBS's lineup:

    -- Pebbles and Bamm Bamm at 7 Central
    -- The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Hour at 7:30
    -- Scooby Doo, Where Are You? at 8:30
    -- The Shazam!/Isis Hour at 9
    -- Far Out Space Nuts at 10
    -- The Ghost Busters at 10:30
    -- Valley of the Dinosaurs at 11
    -- Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids at 11:30
    -- The CBS Children's Film Festival at noon

  4. Here was NBC's:

    -- Emergency+4 at 7
    -- Sigmund And The Sea Monsters at 7:30
    -- The Secret Lives of Waldo Kitty at 8
    -- The Pink Panther at 8:30
    -- Land of the Lost at 9
    -- Run, Joe, Run at 9:30
    -- Return to the Planet of the Apes at 10
    -- West Wind at 10:30
    -- Josie and the Pussycats at 11

  5. Here’s ABC’s:

    Hong Kong Phooey at 7
    The Tom And Jerry/Grape Ape Show at 7:30
    The Lost Saucer at 8:30
    The New Adventures of Gilligan at 9
    Uncle Croc’s Block at 9:30
    The Odd Ball Couple at 10:30
    Speed Buggy at 11
    American Bandstand at 11:30

  6. I should point out that NBC at 11:30 Saturdays is rolling out a show called GO! USA, part of its "NBC Celebrates America" programming for the Bicentennial. It gets its own ad, separate from the rest of the cartoon lineup, in this week's TV Guide. And I can't find it on YouTube, so I'm unsure if it is animated or live action. Anyway, here's the description in the ad: "Starting today, GO! USA presents exciting stories--some based on fact--of young heroes and heroines of American history. Today: 'Gordon,' the fictional drama of a young slave's personal war for independence."

  7. And, in the same spirit, I should really have listed American Bandstand not as part of ABC's cartoon lineup. The Sept. 6 episode on Channel 3, by the way, features Tavares performing "It Only Takes a Minute." That does not appear to be available on YouTube, but here they are doing the song on Soul Train.

  8. Later this evening in 1975, Susan Raye will be by the Hee Haw set to offer us fellas some helpful marriage advice. I, for one, am not so cocky as to deny that I will be taking into consideration what she has to say.