Case Study 17: Powerhouse, Episode 4–“Master of the Art”

Original Airdate: December 13th, 1982 on PBS

In some ways, Powerhouse is reminiscent of the TV show I claimed as my favorite when I was 8 years old–Ghostwriter. Much like Ghostwriter, Powerhouse is a live-action PBS show for kids starring a self-consciously multicultural troupe of supercool teens having adventures with the thinnest of educational veneers. Even though these shows star teens, I’m convinced they’re pitched at younger audiences. Not only are they dripping with didactic moralism, but they’re banking on the fact that little kids will think that teenagers are automatically cool and whatever they’re doing must also be cool as well. You can tell because no teenager remotely concerned with being cool would ever be caught dead watching these shows. But Ghostwriter sure as hell worked on me! Perhaps if I looked on it with today’s jaundiced critical eye I’d be displeased, though, because if Powerhouse is anything to go by, this formula can get ugly pretty damn quickly.

Strengths

  • A heist. Much like a murder mystery, a daring heist is a natural plot engine, and I’m a sucker for them. Considering the general level of production values and half-assery going on here, the heist at the episode’s core is surprisingly entertaining, hitting all the notes–multiple semi-contrived obstacles to overcome, down to the wire suspense and even an unexpected curveball thrown in by a nosy busybody determined to go somewhere she doesn’t belong, putting everything at risk for our heroes. I’m a little afraid to imagine what Powerhouse is like without a heist, though.

Weaknesses

  • Cacophonous. As you may have gathered, I can be particularly sensitive to an overbearing score or aggressively unnecessary musical cues. Let’s just say subtlety isn’t Powerhouse’s long suit. This episode is one of those where the whole thing centers on the problems of a character we’ve never seen and will never seen again. Here, that’s Thelma Gray (Anne Helms-Irons,) the head of security at an art museum. When Thelma reveals to the main characters that she’s lost her job, I get that we’re going to get a sad musical sting. But do we really need sad/dramatic stings in the scenes where the firing is being set up and Thelma is asking her boss why new security measures were implemented without her being notified? It’s sad when someone loses their job, but it’s a little melodramatic to pipe in the orchestral ominousness before it’s even remotely clear that the axe is about to drop. This is on top of generally clamorous musical cues all around, including a cheesy-even-for-1982 theme song and an impossibly large number of horrible noisy little children.
  • Utterly nonsensical. So what does a heist have to do with some random lady losing her job? Why, of course a ragtag team of scrappy teens who like to hang out at a community center are going to come together to help the woman steal artifacts from her former employer in an ill-conceived attempt to get her job back! The idea is to demonstrate that Thelma is a much better security chief than any lousy computer system, so I guess this is a story about automation in the labor force. It may be the stupidest and least realistic such story since John Henry, but that’s neither here nor there. Somehow, this idiotic plan works out perfectly and Thelma does indeed get her job back after demonstrating her ability to coordinate art theft. At the last minute it’s revealed that Thelma told her old boss about her plan in advance and he agreed to allow her to demonstrate, instead of doing something realistic like laughing for five minutes and then telling her to leave the building and never come back. In addition to being a plainly unsatisfying story with wildly implausible motivations, it also doesn’t do a very good job of meeting the show’s educational standard. The theme song declares that “we all have a powerhouse deep down inside,” so you’d expect some sort of mealy-mouthed parables about strong moral fiber and self-actualization. From the title, I was expecting one of the characters to try and discover their artistic potential. If they were going to do something around automation, I imagine the kids working together to research the issue, convene a community forum or a panel discussion with local experts on labor, technology and business, etc. Sure, it would be boring as hell, but this is PBS we’re talking about. Instead, all of that goes out the window and we get to see a story about teens discovering they have the power to–steal things. Admittedly, they’re stealing things in order to redress labor grievances, but I’m still not sure how that’s on message for PBS.
  • Interstitial insanity. Christ on a cross. Instead of taking another seven minutes of screen time to figure out a way to concoct a halfway believable motivation for after school grand larceny, Powerhouse decides to spend that time airing little Sesame Street style short films and animations on a variety of themes, all dripping with sickly-sweet moralism. At least there’s a redemptive factor in that the shorts are all hideously campy. One features a bunch of gawky teens chugging beer, shots and wine before attempting to run a marathon. They don’t do too well due to supposed alcohol side effects such as “blurry vision.” Hey kids! Don’t do shots before running a marathon! The more you know. The most nightmare inducing of these segments is an animated feature entitled “Celebrity Organ.” In lieu of an entertaining montage of star-studded wardrobe malfunctions, we’re given a talk show-esque set-up where the organ of the week can be interviewed. The organ of the week is of course not actually an organ: it’s a horrifying amorphous black blob with arms, legs and gigantic teeth. It’s teeth personified. Did I mention they’re vampire teeth? And the thing has a cape and a “Transylvanian” accent? “Comedy” is alleged to ensue, and we’re introduced to the hideous teeth’s hideous teeth son and it climbs into a coffin and long story short you and your entire family will have teeth nightmares. Why does Powerhouse do this, you ask? How the fuck else are they going to teach you about oral hygiene?! And if PBS doesn’t do that, who will!?!?
  • Racist. Wow, you may be thinking, how can Powerhouse possibly get worse? What if, when the kids are attempting to case the museum, we put them in sheikh outfits and burkas? Dressing up like people from other cultures is always hilarious and fun, especially if you’re planning to commit crimes! The sad thing is that Powerhouse is intended to be a sop to diversity, deliberately foregrounding an inner-city setting and a diverse cast. Apparently, in 1982 that meant whites, blacks and Latinos. Arabs only get to be included in the form of hilarious appropriation props. Speaking of which, that artifact the kids are trying to steal? An implicitly cursed Aztec artifact with glowing ruby eyes! The prospect that the artifact is cursed is brought up, along with an appropriately racist musical sting, but there’s no payoff, unless we’re supposed to think it cursed the guy from the security company who took Thelma’s job. Not only is this part of the story stupid, it’s also totally unnecessary! Hooray!
  • Anne Helms-Irons. Since IMDB didn’t even bother to include a full cast for this episode beyond the principals, I had some trouble even figuring out who this woman was. It turns out that’s because she built her career not as an actress, but as a social worker. As her obituary from the Baltimore Sun tells us, social work was just a way to pay the bills, because her true passion was the stage. And while I’m sure Ms. Helms-Irons was an awesome person and a great social worker, let’s just say that it’s entirely evident that her acting background consisted of star turns in community theater. It’s been frequently remarked upon that great stage actors don’t necessarily translate well to film because they’re used to delivering big and broad performances for folks in the back row of seats. That’s definitely what’s going on here, and it really doesn’t help that the reason that Thelma knows the Powerhouse kids at all is because she’s their magic tutor. What? Yes, of course that’s a thing! Of course that is a thing that you would have. A magic tutor. So Thelma’s the kinda gal that uses her sick sleight-of-hand skillz to produce a rose from thin air when introduced to the security company stooge about to take her job, and coming from Helms-Irons it fits right in. In other words, she’s a goddamned bone-in ham.

Motivation: For some reason, the kids on this show give two shits about Thelma’s gainful employment, so this is all in service of her getting work/money.

Final Episode Judgment: 1/10. Chances are pretty good that you’ll find another way to scratch that itch for a well-executed heist.

NEXT TIME: I peek inside the Secret Diary of a Call Girl!

Case Study 17: Powerhouse, Episode 4–“Master of the Art”