Legends of Tomorrow: Wet Hot American Bummer

Sara: "Oh God, not a 90's 'Not' joke."
Ray: "It's like comedy comfort food."

When Legends of Tomorrow embraces a pastiche episode, it embraces the hell out of that pastiche episode. Welcome to 1995, campers.

I need to get this out of my system right up front. How is 1995 already a nostalgia-worthy historical period? 1995 was like five minutes ago. Also, my sciatica is acting up and those neighborhood kids won't stay off of my lawn. Damn, but middle age does sneak up on you.

OK, my suddenly being elderly aside, this week the Legends go to camp, in an episode that's unsurprisingly a fond pastiche of both Wet Hot American Summer and the summer camp movies of the late 70s and early 80s of which Wet Hot American Summer was itself a loving pastiche.

Look, the thing about doing this sort of thing is that your response as a viewer is largely dependent on your own feelings about the source material. Last season, in the exact same spot of the running order now that I think of it, they gave us their Steven Spielberg riff, 'Phone Home.' While I'd like to think that my overwhelmingly positive response to 'Phone Home' was all down to the way they used Spielberg's own themes of Innocence v. Cynicism and used them to mirror what was going on with the Legends at the time, I'm forced to admit another possibility. It's arguable that having been an eight-year-old boy at the time E.T. was released might have just meant that a Spielberg riff pushes all of my happy nostalgia buttons and they had me at hello.

What I'm getting at here is that I totally missed the movie Wet Hot American Summer when it came out, and so I don't really have a strong connection to it. And I strongly suspect that that hindered my enjoyment of a lot of this week's episode. I have seen it once, about two years ago, and thought, 'Oh, that's what that's all about.' The same is actually true of the film Mean Girls, which I think also got a little shout out this week that I didn't properly appreciate.

So, for those in the same boat as I am, Wet Hot American Summer is a movie released in 2001, which is set in 1981 at a fictional summer camp.  It's structured as a series of vignettes involving a large number of characters, showing a lot of little incidents that happened at the camp, none of which make a really linear 'story' but which instead all add up to a sort of 'sum of its parts' view of the camp. The point isn't really taking a character from point A to point Z, the point is to bounce back and forth between a lot of characters, some of whom are going from point A to Point B, some from Point J to point R, and others happily hanging out at point E and smoking pot while trying to get laid. It's different type of storytelling, and it's a hard one to seamlessly blend with a TV series that needs to continue telling its season long storyline.

To give the Legends staff credit, they mostly pull it off, barring one or two awkward places where the seams show. For example, the incident of the Lake Beast, where Ava gets pranked into falling into the lake at night, is exactly the sort of mini story that would happen in that sort of film, and it totally works here. What works less is Sara and Ava beating the innocent Camp Director into unconsciousness and leaving her body in the woods to die just because the episode is done with the fake-out about who the demon really is. This is because, in the first example, the tone of the scene and what we know about how the characters are working with one another. In the second, they clash violently. Sara has just attacked an innocent, if unpleasant, woman and left her in the woods. The Sara and Ava we know would care about that. But while the type of serialized storytelling Legends usually uses would address that, a vignette comedy structure would absolutely shrug it off and move on to setting up the next scene or gag. Which, again, is fine. It's a perfectly valid form of storytelling. It's just seated a little discordantly here because it jars with what we're used to.

The thing is, for the vignette comedy style of film that they're imitating, really obvious artifice is part of the joke. We're supposed to be perfectly clear that the characters and situations are unfolding in a deliberately artificial way, because that's the film's way of saying, 'Hey, remember how this sort of things always happens at more or less this point of the story? That's awesome and funny, am I right?' It just sits awkwardly with how we'd normally expect, for example, Sara and Ava, to normally behave.

Not everyone can rock those braids.

But enough of the academic downer stuff, because there's really a lot that works wonderfully here. Having Sara turn out to be a secret summer camp enthusiast was a great decision. Ray, we'd expect to be super into summer camp, but Sara was a surprise. It's a good surprise too, because it makes total sense once we remember that the Sara who got onto the Queen's Gambit with Oliver was a very different woman from who she is now. Also, if you crunch the numbers, Sara would have been more or less the campers' age in 1995. No wonder she was basking in it. Bonus points for the sly way that the episode pointed out that she would have known who the 'cute boys' of that year were. Mario Lopez indeed. The correct answer, obviously, is Mark-Paul Gosselaar.

Matching Mick with Charlie was such an obvious way to bring her into the team that I'm glad that the episode held back on it for the first half and let Zari do some of the world class put-upon-eye-rolling that Tala Ashe does so well. Surprisingly, Charlie has great chemistry with Mick in a way that Amaya never did. Gold stars for both Maisie Richardson-Sellers and Dominic Purcell for making their new vibe so believable and different.

Also in the excellent column, reminding us through the pinky swear in the opening that Ava never really had a childhood so that that could bubble silently underneath things until Ava finally had to say it out loud to Sara, who was too busy enjoying camp memories to have put it together. God, the writers do a nice job of making those two a believable couple and having them process things as they happen instead of drawing them out for cheap drama.

As for Constantine, this episode continued the steady and confident way that the season is drip feeding his storyline to us. Clearly kids in danger are a sore point for him, and they know that they can sort of trust us to know why, but they continue to find subtle little ways to give the viewer just enough information about why he cares if you're not up on the whole story of Astra. My personal theory, and I have no forehand knowledge here, just guessing from clues the last couple of episodes, we're in a post 'Dangerous Habits' world here, and John just gave away whatever magical healing mojo he received to beat his cancer to save that kid, hence why Gideon can't just heal him.

'Dangerous Habits' is by far the best known of the Hellblazer plotlines, and if you haven't read it you should absolutely go track down a trade paperback and read it right this moment. I won't spoil any more of it here except to say that the Keanu Reeves film missed most of the good parts and all of the point of the story.

So, what have we learned today?

The magical prison Charlie was in is indeed timeless, or at least time works differently there. Seriously, the show is doing a bang up job this season of answering my questions from the previous week's review in the next episode. What this really means of course is that the writing staff is doing an excellent job of leading us to ask the right questions at the exact right amount of time before they plan to answer them, which is difficult to pull off.

Again, Sara noticed a change to the timeline that Ava thought was part of 'time as it's supposed to be.'  I'm going to continue to assume that this is because Sara has time traveled so much more, and that puts her at a different angle to the time continuum and changes that occur to it. Or it's a lazy trope that they've probably used twice too often at this point. Definitely one of those. I'm going to be generous and assume the former.

Everybody remember where we parked.

This week the Waverider took us to Camp Ogawa, Maine, 1995. As I alluded to above, this was a little bit of a cheat as the movie they were riffing on was released in 2001 and took place in 1981, but then they haven't really done the 90s before and it made sense for Sara's character to have associations with camps at that time, so I'm OK with them splitting the difference.



Quotes:

Zari: "Well, she’s not exactly a bloodthirsty unicorn."

Ray: "Well, we used to use the buddy system to make sure everyone was safe. And this is where Nate would say ‘I’m your buddy’ and we’d do a fist bump, or a silly jig, or..."

John: "Now, where did your mate Zach run off to last night?"
Kid: "He didn’t say. But I hope he didn’t go near the outdoor showers."
John: "Why? What’s by the outdoor showers?"
Kid: "That’s where I hid my Victoria’s Secret catalogue."

Ava: "They’ve been calling me ‘Lake Beast’ behind my back."
Kid: "Excuse me, Lake Beast."
Ava: "And to my face."

Ray: "I’ve seen enough horror movie trailers to know this won’t end well."

John: "Oh, Gideon. That’s nice, love. We should party."

Bits and Pieces:

-- The cold open scene was a great bit of misdirection. We knew it was going to be a summer camp pastiche episode, so the stilted dialog and clich├ęd setup didn't raise any alarm bells until the pull back to reveal it was a crappy movie. Nice playing with audience expectations there.

-- Swamp Thaaaang is exactly the sort of picture that Troma films would have made, and adding another 'A' to their 'Thang' is exactly the way they would have delineated the sequels. This is the second week in a row that I've been hoping they were giving Troma a shout out. Am I looking for them too hard? Is it a shout out of support to James Gunn? Am I imagining things?

-- Speaking of Swamp Thing, I loved that he got a name check. I wonder if he's on the list of characters that they aren't allowed to use, or if he's just too cost prohibitive an effect for them. It sure would be great if we saw him this season.

-- So what's the deal with Charlie's clothes? When we first see her she's sadly lost her disco outfit and is wearing some kind of prisoner jumpsuit. She can't shapeshift anymore, so they must be actual clothes. So, were the disco clothes actually part of her mass and she removed them like clipping off a fingernail, or do shifters magically summon clothes into existence, or what. Whatever the case, I absolutely loved Charlie's new look at the end.

Amaya's Disco Outfit.  #Neverforget

-- And I meant to mention last week, but it got brought up again. Why is everyone so cool with the thought of throwing Charlie, a clearly sentient being, directly into Hell? Particularly when just removing her powers so she couldn't cause any trouble was an option on the table?

-- John clearly enjoys getting under Ava's skin a little bit. That's a fun dynamic. And was John referencing what happened to Chas in City of Demons when he was warning Ray off? Because that Chas was a totally different Chas than Chas in the Constantine series, and now my head hurts from reconciling realities.

-- I've been hoping that Ava would leave DC and start traveling on the Waverider. It was worth the loss of Nate and Gary for the week to make that happen.

-- Sara forgetting that she can't talk to Gideon from Ava's bedroom was laugh out loud funny.

-- Matt Ryan made a camp counselor outfit look sexy. Maybe he is actually magic.

-- I notice that I haven't once mentioned our Shtriga, Chad Stevens. That's probably because he was obviously the demon from the get go, and never really got any more interesting from there. Although, all demons should have names like Chad Stevens. It brings the image of the demonic chapter of Sig Ep irresistibly to mind.

-- Do Sara and Ava appear in the upcoming 'Elseworlds' crossover? Because the thing about turning them into kids felt a lot like an exercise in covering up the fact that the actresses were unavailable.

-- Young Sara dusting the Shtriga by staking it in the heart was the Buffiest thing to be shown on TV since Buffy. One assumes intentionally.

-- I look forward to finding out how Nora ended up at Renn Fest.

So, a solid and fun episode that moved all our plotlines forward, and probably contained a lot of jokes relating to Wet Hot American Summer that I totally failed to get. For example, I think Chad Stevens' karate thing was a reference to Christopher Meloni, but I'm not 100% sure.

Three out of Four first kisses, but I'll bump it up to three and a half if you explain enough of the in-jokes to me in the comments below.

Mikey Heinrich is, among other things, a freelance writer, volunteer firefighter, and roughly 78% water. You can find more of his work at the 42nd Vizsla.

6 comments:

percysowner said...

Some BTS stuff. First the review of Swamp Thaaaang “The production design is as lazy as the action staging.” is an actual quote from an AV Club Review of the season 1 Legends of Tomorrow episode "Last Refuge" review here https://tv.avclub.com/legends-of-tomorrow-hits-a-new-low-with-a-nonsensical-t-1798187476 The AV Club gave it a shout out in their review here https://tv.avclub.com/a-near-perfect-legends-of-tomorrow-uses-the-buddy-syste-1830400305

Also Nate wasn't in this for very personal reasons. Heywood took to Instagram earlier this afternoon to share an image of him and his newborn daughter, who was born during the filming of the episode, hence Zano's absence. In the heartfelt message, Zano revealed his wife had suffered complications throughout the pregnancy and that his daughter had spent nearly a month in the neonatal intensive care unit at British Columbia Children's hospital. More here https://comicbook.com/dc/2018/11/12/legends-of-tomorrow-nick-zano-child/ Nick Zano profusely thanked the cast and the writers for writing him out so he could be with his family.

Mikey Heinrich said...

That's so cool, thank you for sharing that. Epic level trolling by the writers in the funnest way possible, and so cool of everyone involved to help mr. Zano be with his wife and child.

Anonymous said...

I thought Mick and Amaya had a fantastic relationship during the first half of S2. It was imo wasted by pairing her with Nate. Personally i hope they become a weird duo.

Nick said...

Not sure if you know this but they are working on a Swamp Thing Live-Action series, airing on their streaming service. I'm not sure how this and the Arrow-verse will work, but I don't think they will converge, i.e. Constantine and Swamp Thing wont be in scenes together.

Which kinda sucks because it implies that it's the pre-Moore Swamp Thing.

Mikey Heinrich said...

I'll have to go back and re-watch season 2. It's possible that all the stuff with her and Nate totally wiped everything from before that from my mind. Plus, that was before I started reviewing these, so I usually only watched a given episode once, and was often drinking at the time. That is still my policy when watching Arrow, if anyone was wondering.

A live action swamp thing series could be either amazing or excruciating depending on how they approach it. I'm going to keep my fingers crossed. Thanks, I hadn't heard about that one.

On a related - has anyone heard anything about Berlanti's live action doom patrol lately? I really wish it was Robot Man, Crazy Jane and Rebis, but I'll take what I can get if it's still happening.

All of this weeks comments are slowly revealing that I pay almost no attention to behind the scenes stuff. There are pluses and minuses to living that way. Fewer spoilers come your way, for one.

Anonymous said...

This was a great ep of Legends of Tomorrow. Nice review.

Mikey, Doom Patrol is still happening; it'll come out on the DC streaming service sometime in 2019. As for characters, the backdoor pilot on Titans (which is a really good show!) included Robotman, Negative Man, Elasti-Woman, and Dr. Caulder. I think we might get more for the actual series.