Monday, August 3, 2015

Television Weekend: "Wet Hot American Summer - First Day of Camp" and "Penny Dreadful"

I don't often "binge watch" TV, but when you can get through a whole season of a TV show in four hours, sign me up.

The 2001-era movie, Wet Hot American Summer, has, apparently, become a staple of Netflix viewing.  Or something.  Because, for some reason, 14 years later, Netflix has doubled-down and produced 8 episodes of a TV show that should be insanely expensive to produce, just off actor's salaries.  My guess is that everyone is working at scale or something, because, really, what was a herd of mostly up-and-coming actors in 2001 are now established either in Hollywood or smaller comedy circles.  The Netflix series has also added a bucket-load of additional actors in other roles, including Jon Hamm (who has just shockingly good comedy chops, as he's demonstrated multiple times over the years), Michael Cera, and a few I don't want to spoil.

If you missed the original movie, the conceit was a play on "the summer camp picture", which was a staple of the 1980's, from comedies to horror films.   The adult-aged actors played 16-year-old camp counselors, and, Friday the 13th aside, worked not just aspects of those movies, but of camp, in general.*

The original movie squishes a lot into a relatively short running time.  It's a great ensemble piece playing out over the last day of camp as everyone concludes their unfinished business, from romance to preventing a rogue satellite from landing on the camp.  You're either with the movie or you're against it.

The talent stacked up is really impressive.  Paul Rudd is headlining Marvel movies, Elizabeth Banks is Elizabeth Banks, as is Amy Poehler, Bradley Cooper, Molly Shannon, and quite a few more.  Hell, the talking can of vegetables from the movie turned out to be voiced by H. Jon Benjamin of Archer and Bob's Burgers fame.  If they were missing any of the key players from 2001, I didn't figure out who they were.

As with the movie, your enjoyment of the TV show isn't really the point.  It genuinely feels like comedians just coming together and working through some goofy ideas in comedy skit format where there aren't a lot of rules.  You want to have that whole conversation through a plant?  You go ahead.  It's not taking anything away from anything.  And, pretty clearly, everyone is having fun or there'd be no reason to be there.

The TV show feels slower to start, and certainly does not seem as if it's drawing direct lines to where we're at on the last day of camp, but give the writers credit.  There's a bit of mirroring of the original movie in some plots, and entirely new plots for some of the characters, including Elizabeth Banks' bar-b-q challenged counselor character.  I dunno.  While it's slower paced and pretty clearly they couldn't just use the best bits for 4 hours worth of episodes the same way they could with a shorter movie, it's still pretty good and retains the tone of the first movie pretty solidly.

If my completion of all eight episodes in about a 24-hour window is any indication, do with that what you will.

I'm on episode 5 of Season 1 of the Showtime series Penny Dreadful, and, man...  is this show uneven.  And weirdly conceived.  It genuinely feels like League of Extraordinary Gentlemen written for classic horror fans by people with no familiarity with the classic horror, or show-runners who are going to make this work whether it makes any sense or not.

The name, by the way, refers to cheap horror novels on the Victorian age, the equivalent of 20th Century "Pulps", and, no, neither Dracula nor Frankenstein really qualify.

Given how far afield the classic Universal Horror pictures are from their source material, I don't want to rail too much about changes from the books upon which they're basing some of the characters (one of which is The Portrait of Dorian Gray, which I would like to say I had the will to finish, but that would be a lie).

I'm still working through whether the show is trying to do sexual/ body horror, or if it's just got a Showtime-instituted mandate for having some oddly prudish attitudes about sex for a show that features a LOT of sex and pointed nudity.

The show pits Dr. Murray, the father of Mina Murray of Dracula fame, against someone not yet said to be Dracula.  He's also no longer a doctor or alienist, and now some sort of African explorer.  And there's a former friend of Mina's played by Eva Green who is maybe semi-possessed?  Or a witch?  or... I dunno.  Toss in a British-born Frankenstein and his monster, maybe a mummy?, a western sharp shooter who harbors secrets (I have my guesses), Dorian Gray and a doomed Billie Piper, and it's a lot.  And yet, it rarely feels like anything of weight is happening except in the scenes with Eva Green.

They've played a bit with chronological order, but here, I'm not sure they did it in quite the right order.  There's building intrigue, and then there's "I don't understand why anyone is doing anything".  We're more than half-way through the first season and I feel like we're getting going on Act 1.

I do have a bit of a timeline, because I plan to cancel Showtime when I finish the show, so I don't want to drag it out too long, and it's at least weird enough in execution that I want to see where they're going.  I just don't think it's quite as good as either it thinks it is, or how good the internet fanbase seems to believe.  I'm not quite sure what you get out of transporting Frankenstein several decades into the future, making him British and munging the book to such a degree.  At least LOEG assumed all of those characters had already had their adventures behind them.

Anyhow, if you're wondering why no movies this weekend...  this is why.

*At this point I'd point out, I'm pretty aware that the multi-week summer camp experience is not something most kids do.  I went to camp, but it only lasted a week, which is good, because I'm not a fan of recycling undies.  I only ever knew of one person who did the multi-week camp deal, and it was pretty clearly a long-standing family tradition that the women in her family went to Camp Woodchuck.**

**It was not Camp Woodchuck


picky said...

Never seen WHAS, but the boyfriend liked it, so I may watch soon. Yeah, I think the multi-week camp deal is either family tradition or money combined with "when do my kids go back to school" - but still, I'd watch.

So Penny Dreadful. Question? Is it scary? Because I'm a chicken, but the show intrigues me. I've heard so much about it, and I love Eva Greene. But we're talking get spooked after watching Law & Order: SVU, so I dunno.

The League said...

I really don't know if Penny Dreadful is scary or not. It's not a "and then the guy jumps out of the shadows" kind of scary. Actually, that totally happens in episode 3, I think.

It can go for the grotesque, certainly. I think you'd know by the end of episode 2 if you could tolerate the show. If you like Eva Greene, she is given the most interesting stuff to do and she knocks it out of the park.