Matt Ryan, Jes Macallan
Photo: Jack Rowand (The CW)

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

Reader, that is a perfect Legends Of Tomorrow line. It is without flaw. It epitomizes what this show, at its creative prime in its fourth season, does so well. It’s the kind of line that takes a relatively tame—by Legends standards—episode, and reveals it as something special. Pulling off something like “The Good, The Bad, And The Cuddly,” something ambitious and strange, is hard. Pulling off something like “Here We Go Again,” something intricate, clever, and sneakily bittersweet, may be even harder. But to tackle a relatively low-key monster-of-the-week hour with such style and thought, that’s really something.

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Put another way: “Wet Hot American Bummer” isn’t a landmark episode of Legends Of Tomorrow. In some ways, it’s very much business as usual. While still funny, surprising, moving, and ambitious, there are funnier episodes, more surprising episodes, more moving episodes, more ambitious episodes—you get the idea. This isn’t the apex of any of those superlatives. It’ll just have to settle for being close to perfect. It’s almost as perfect as the line at the top of the page.

Ray-Ray’s horror movie trailers line doesn’t begin this review simply because it’s a solid quip. It is that, but there’s a much better reason. “Wet Hot American Bummer” is excellent in some of the same ways as that one piece of dialogue. Yes, it’s funny and entertaining, but it doesn’t get those qualities out of the blue. That line is funny because Ray Palmer says it, and Ray Palmer says it because the writers know exactly who he is. They take an observation any character could make, one that many a character in many a fictional property has made, and turn it on its head in one small, perfect way. Ray-Ray doesn’t see horror movies. He sees horror movie trailers.

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That’s this episode in microcosm, if you add in a few hearty dashes of real pain. Amazing thing, isn’t it? Writers, looking at a scenario, stop to ask themselves what the people about whom they’re writing would think and feel about that scenario (or alternately, writers look at their characters and imagine what scenario might be most dynamic), and look what happens. And there’s one last element to this episode’s success—it succeeds, as the Legends themselves do, because it uses the buddy system.

Let’s break the pieces of “Wet Hot American Bummer,” credited to Ray Utarnachitt and Tyron B. Carter, down. The setting: A writer’s room (picture a whiteboard and many doughnuts). On the board, a large card that reads ‘summer camp.’ Who do we have on hand, these writers ask? Well, there’s Ava (Jes Macallan, perfect here.) She’s a clone, and all her childhood memories are a fiction, and she knows this. Not only has she never been to camp, she’s never even been a child. Great, very interesting. Next: John Constantine (Matt Ryan, also great.) Well, because of last season’s “Daddy Darhkest,” even people unfamiliar with his backstory have heard about Astra, so they know he’s got some serious baggage when it comes to saving kids. Great, very interesting. Lock down summer camp, this is perfect.

Next: Ray Palmer (Brandon Routh). Well, Ray would have both excelled at and been terrible at camp, right? Good at all the stuff, bad at all the misbehaving. He’d be tops at lanyards and terrible at necking in the woods. Great, very funny, potentially interesting if... you pair him with Constantine! Oil and water, great. Speaking of water, Constantine knows Swamp Thing! Let’s put a pin in that. Who needs more coffee? Can someone get more coffee? Moving on.

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So who’s with Ava? Well, it probably wouldn’t even occur to Sara (Caity Lotz) that camp might be weird for Ava, because how often does one’s partner entirely bypass childhood? So she might be unintentionally insensitive! That’s interesting too. Now, who’s left? Charlie/Not-Amaya’s still in the brig. Who’s been in jail? Mick. Who else has had a hard time finding her place on the team? Zari. Done, done, and done.

Wait, shit, we forgot Gideon. Maybe Sara forgets Gideon isn’t everywhere? Like she’s not in Ava’s house? But wait, what if Gideon can make phone calls? Great. Done. Let’s get to work. Fin.

Brandon Routh, Caity Lotz, Matt Ryan, and Jes Macallan
Photo: Jack Rowand (The CW)

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That, frankly, is some top-tier stuff. Even the omission of Nate and Gary makes perfect sense, because if Nate’s around, everything gets too complicated, and it stops being about the camp and starts being about Amaya. If Nate’s not there, clearly Gary isn’t either, since they’re now time-bros. And once the writers drop the players into position, they proceed with an expert balance of playfulness and thought. “Ava and Sara get Big-ed” is the kind of thing you’d see in fan-fic, but it never feels remotely like fan service, and never becomes too maudlin, nor too superficial. “Constantine and Ray tramp through the woods” is a perfect set-up for some Odd Couple antics, but it also means that Ray’s confusion and preoccupation and Constantine’s trauma and guilt will both float to the surface. Charlie/Not-Amaya, Mick, and Zari get the short end of the stick, but this is all just a means of getting her out of the cage and onto the team, so that’s okay.

How marvelous is that? It would be so easy to drop the whole cast at Camp Ogawa, throw in some jokes and a cool fight, and call it a day. Not the case here. The characters act like people because they’re fully realized characters, not sketches. They’re so thoughtfully written that even their jokes are specific to them. Another example, again from Ray: “I love summer camp! Everyone used to call me Kid Counselor!” “Bet you took that as a compliment, too, didn’t you, mate?”

Grades mean nothing, but this misses the ‘A’ for only a few little things: A slightly underwhelming monster in good old Chad (funny, but not on the level of a murderous unicorn), a few just-okay acting moments with some of the kids (it happens), and the sense that the Charlie/Not-Amaya release is just not quite earned (though it comes close). Other than that, it’s incredibly thoughtful, well-paced, stylishly directed, just a bit melancholy and honest-to-god romantic (that kiss!) The score is great (maybe the best it’s ever been). The costumes are great. The final fight is great, especially when juxtaposed with Ray and John’s rescue mission (and the late arrival of the counselors.) “Wet Hot American Bummer” might not become the episode one shows to a skeptical friend to get them on board with Legends Of Tomorrow, but it is a perfect example of what a television show can accomplish when it leads with great characters and puts them in the hands of thoughtful writers.

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Now, which one of you whippersnappers wants to be hypnotized?

Stray observations

  • Why the fuck not?: Ray, ever the square, teaches his counselors actual survival skills, god, what a dweeb, except oh wait it saves the day! See also: the dweeb kids asking, “who plays baseball in the dark?” See also: Ava, also a square, does not know how to pinky swear.
  • Gideon, what’s the most meta moment?: The real answer’s down in the last bullet, but that deserves last-bullet status. Second place: The director of Swamp Thaaaang is David Geddes... cinematographer on Legends Of Tomorrow and director of four episodes, including the delightful “Helen Hunt”.
  • Line-reading of the week: Ray’s “Right? That’s why” after the Kid Counselor line. Honorable mention to “To make out, duh.”
  • Thanks to commenter IrvingLee for the heads-up on the very good reason Nick Zano isn’t in this episode.
  • Lots of day-drinking this week.
  • The Arrowverse is now three-for-three successfully transitioning actors in their roster to new roles with either equal or increased effectiveness. Katie Cassidy is much better as Black Siren (a.k.a “Not-Laurel”) than she was as Laurel on Arrow. It’s still early, but Maisie Richardson-Sellers seems at least as, if not more, interesting as Charlie than she was as Amaya. And there’s the granddaddy of them all, the parade of Harrisons Wells, as played by Tom Cavanaugh on The Flash. Honorable mentions: The various Captains Cold (Wentworth Miller), and Damiens Darhk (Neal McDonough), the latter of which are all the same person, just in different timelines/stages in a very long life. This does not count anyone who’s played an evil version of themselves. At this point, almost all of them have, with mixed results.
  • Ominous groundskeeper sure went nowhere, huh?
  • “The production design is as lazy as the action staging.” Harsh! I am well and truly tickled, but I cannot wait until my predecessor, the great Oliver Sava, sees tonight’s episode.

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Yes, it was a D+ review.
Screenshot: The A.V. Club