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Home » Culture and Criticism

Summer School

Submitted by on June 10, 2008 – 7:30 AM35 Comments

We've entered the 12 Days Of Summer Movies homestretch, and Joe R winds up his time in the watcher's seat with Summer School, a movie with the dubious distinction of teaching me and my friends the one obscene gesture we hadn't already known previously.

For whatever reason, Summer School falls into a category with Adventures in Babysitting, The Princess Bride, and Labyrinth as far as movies I saw a billion times when I was a kid. Unfortunately, while The Princess Bride grew into a national treasure, Adventures in Babysitting became a cult favorite for Elisabeth Shue fans, and Labyrinth a cult favorite for goths, Bowie fans, and Muppet fans, Summer School kind of faded from view. Or at least from pay cable, where it seemed to run thrice daily in the late '80s and early '90s. There's no way I've seen this in at least a dozen years.

Summer Timeline: Summer school, duh. A bunch of ne'er-do-well high school students need to pass an English exam by the end of the summer to save Shoop's (Mark Harmon) job. In exchange, Shoop pledges to do one thing for each student, with favors ranging from driving lessons to statutory rape. Awesome!

Enviable Summer Locale: The movie takes place in a California surfing community of some kind. Of course, most of the action happens between the four walls of a classroom, but they manage to get to the beach once or twice.

Quick-Burning Summer Romance: Here's the thing: I never thought Mark Harmon was all that much of a hot ticket. Not on The West Wing or NCIS or…didn't he do a show with Marlee Matlin or something? Anyway, I'm still kind of lukewarm about 2008 Mark Harmon, but back in the day? I'd hit that. Anyway, he rubs up against Kirstie Alley in this movie. She alternates between coldly bitchy and warmly earthy, but in either iteration, the shoulder pads and high-waisted jeans are calling all the shots. As a romance, it's nothing special. The three-way kiss in the sand with the dog doesn't help.

Do The Characters Have Their Best Summer Ever?: Let's see…Denise learns to drive, Rhonda has a baby, Chainsaw and Dave get to stage a Tobe Hooper gore-fest in the classroom, Pam (Courtney Thorne-Smith!) almost gets to make it with 1987 Mark Harmon…it ain't the worst summer they've ever had.

Quality Of Beach/Summer Fashions: Gosh, where to begin? Start with Harmon's dizzying collection of flowered shirts and neon-rimmed shades; Kirstie's denim skirts and zebra print/denim shirt; Robin Thomas's checkered sportcoat and other peach-polo-shirt preppie identifiers; Kevin's half-shirt, which inexplicably is supposed to identify him as the jock rather than out him as a homosexual; Shoop's roller skates…the list really does go on and on.

Worth The A/C?: I gotta say, for a stupid '80s comedy, it's not bad. Marc Harmon's a peach, the students are all pretty much likeable (except for goddamn boundary-stepping, jailbait Pam), Chainsaw and Dave's teenage alcoholism is treated with the appropriate casualness, and Robin Thomas plays the perfect '80s asshole villain. Sure, the comedy's broad and the male stripper plot makes no sense (the kid's stripping so he can get a lot of action? And is it ever explained what Shoop was doing at the male strip club?), but it's better than almost all the shit Andrew McCarthy starred in.

Overall Suitability As Summer Movie: B-plus

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  • EB says:

    I was 16 when this came out and the whole statutory rape thing did not seem like a big deal at all at the time. Weird. I remember driving 20 minutes to see this movie in a torrential downpour. I had just gotten my license. When we got there I realized I left my wallet at home and we had to go back home and turn around and come back. Not the best first date ever, though I was still a badass in my 'vette. 1980 Chevette.

  • Rachel says:

    I saw this in the theater, and I LOOOOOOOOVED it. Managed to catch it again recently on TBS or USA or something and it was okay, but…. Shut up, Courtney Thorne-Smith. I seem to have this inexplicable urge to smack her in the jaw, no matter what she's doing.

  • Tisha_ says:

    God, this review made my day. I loved/love this movie so much. Thanks for saying it doesn't suck, because it totally doesn't!

    I need to go rent it or something. I wonder if it's out on blueray? lol

  • Alexis says:

    I think I might have to see this one. I really liked Harmon in The West Wing!

  • Lindsay says:

    With the exception of Summer School, I too obsessed over your favorite childhood movies–all gems in my opinion that I watched until I wore out the video tape. Another one on constant replay: Romancing the Stone. Classic!

  • Cindi in CO says:

    See, I'm just the opposite, re: Mark Harmon. Back in the day? Waaay too pretty. Now, on NCIS? Hubba hubba.

    Still, this was a fun movie. The only way it could be radically improved, would be for Pam to drown off her Goddamn surfboard.

    Courtney Thorne-Smith is NOT my favorite.

  • Lisa says:

    I was in college attending summer school when this movie came out. It was held over for four weeks in our two-screen theater in small-town Arkansas, so how many times did I see it? ONE MILLION.

    And it never ever got old. No matter what Courtney Thorne-Smith does for the rest of her life, she's always going to be creepy surfing-obsessed Pam (and WTF was up with that? Dude, the ocean is STILL GOING TO BE THERE at 3:00!) and I could never watch J.A.G. without think how much Patrick Labyorteaux chunked up.

    And, ::sigh::, it started a crush on Dean Cameron that persists to this very day. Call me, Chainsaw!

  • Tara says:

    I probably haven't seen it in a dozen years either, though I think back in the day I had it on VHS, recorded off a free movie channel weekend, so I had watched it a lot. Glad to hear it holds up reasonably well!

  • k says:

    I would hit it with any year's Mark Harmon, for serious. Though the role I associate with him most strongly is Ted Bundy, even though I never watched the TV movie Harmon did where he played him. I'm just, Mark Harmon: stone cold (now silver) fox, Ted Bundy, on St. Elsewhere.

  • Pegkitty says:

    But…but…what was the previously-unknown obscene gesture??

  • Margaret in CO says:

    "The three-way kiss in the sand with the dog doesn't help."
    I loved that part! I kept wondering how many takes it took to film, and imagining Kirstie spit-spit-spitting in the surf to get rid of the dog germs. Hee.

    Ditto on the Courtney Thorne-Smith. Blar.

    I ran into Mark Harmon in a restaurant & he was sweet as pie, even though I couldn't stop staring in a foolishly star-struck way. Prettiest guy I've ever seen in person, and nice as hell. Was really sweet with the waitstaff too. Been crushin' on him ever since.

  • Karen says:

    Actually, "Summer School" (which I loved) was a feature-film follow-up to an earlier Harmon-Alley pairing, in the made-for-TV "Prince of Bel Air," which, if anything, was even better. Harmon was one goddam charming guy.

    As to late-model via early-model Harmon, I'd hit either one in a New York minute. I remember when he was made [the first ever!] People Magazine's Sexiest Man Alive, and then a year later he up and married Pam Dawber. Seriously? Mindy?!?! No one could figure that out. But hey–they've lasted longer than most.

    @Margaret in CO: thanks for the insider info. I love learning when celebrities are actually decent. I was on a train from Albany to NYC once with D.B. Sweeney and his wife and small boy. Said small boy had been confined in a car for Way Too Long previously, and was…rambunctious. Sweeney and his wife did what they could, but it was a losing battle–and he apologized sincerely to everyone in about a 6-row radius and offered to buy us drinks. He was sweet as pie, too, and I've kind of adored him ever since. Funny how that works.

  • Jen S says:

    Aw, this played at the dollar theater when I was but a wee high schooler, and my best friend at the time and I would go, pay to see this one, watch it, than sneak into Dirty Dancing, over and over for weeks. Awesome.

    I mostly remember the famous "tension breaker, had to be done" scream, the part at the beginning when the girl turns in her textbook and when the woman opens it, you hear that "brand new never been opened before" crac, and cruisin' in my friend's Nova listening to the Cure after the show. Good times.

  • Stee says:

    Summer School is the best movie ever made.

  • Andrea says:

    Yeah, yeah, yeah. Loved Summer School . . . would definitely hit late or early model Mark Harmon. But I'm with Pegkitty: what was the previously unknown obscene gesture?

  • Leigh in CO says:

    Harmon was always a favorite of mine (and agree that he gets better with age…both for looks and for the longevity of his marriage). I do have a recollection of some revelation that he has no small amount of back hair, and I think it was a scene in this very movie that revealed it…a scene where he's cleaning a pool, perhaps? Egads, aging can be trying sometimes.

  • Jaybird says:

    Rachel: That urge is in no way inexplicable.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    The "fist to cheek, tongue pushing out opposite cheek" BJ gesture. "Oh yeah, now you're gettin' it."

  • Rachel says:

    Heh, this is one of those movies that I will watch every time it shows up on TV and I'm somewhere with cable.

  • Anlyn says:

    Okay, for several days now I've been wondering who John Barroway (Doctor Who/Torchwood) reminded me of, and now I know. He's the near spitting image of a young Mark Harmon. Thanks! Now I can quit feeling bugged.

  • Andrea says:

    Re: obscene gesture. Ah yes. Thank you for clarifying. My absolute need to know what the gesture was says something about me; I'm just not too sure I want to know what that something is.

  • Krissa says:

    I'm just having a hard time getting over the shorts and knee socks on the cops in that photo up top.

  • susan says:

    I was the kid watching St. Elsewhere and just loving Mark Harmon (and um, somewhere in my mom's house are probably some VHS tapes of Reasonable Doubts with Marlee Matlin). I don't watch NCIS but he's aging well. And it is a fun movie. I'm so old.

  • Alan Swann says:

    One of the truly great bad '80s movies. Being the age of the actors playing the kids — in other words, a few years out of high school — it was inconceivable to me that Harmon went for Kirstie Alley instead of CTS, or even Shawnee Smith (Rhonda). Still is, in fact.

    Other than that unfortunate choice, I always wanted to be Shoop — the cool teacher willing to go to jail for his kids. On roller skates.

  • Elena says:

    I am a teacher, and have often declared that it would be the highlight of my career if a vaguely familiar face showed up on the last day of the semester, tossed a bathroom pass on my desk, responded to my bewildered look by shrugging and annoucning that his zipper had been stuck, and sat down to take the final.

  • Maria says:

    "My…girl…wants…to…partyallthetime, partyallthetime, partyallthetime!"

    Love, love, love this movie to the point where I can even tolerate Kirstie Xenu Alley. But yeah, Pam sucked. Who goes surfing in the middle of the day? Nobody, that's who. Whiny poseur.

    I'm with those who will take any and all versions of El Harmon, but I have a total soft spot for Shoop. He went to jail for his students. In roller skates.

  • Michael says:

    @ Karen,
    That echoes my impression of D.B. Sweeney from when I met him. He & Julianne Moore came into the movie theater I worked at during grad school on an off-day from filming "Roommates". Both of them were very nice to the few of us who recognized them on a weekday afternoon at the movies.

  • Joe R says:

    I forgot to mention how this movie was the first and only time I haven't wanted to punt Shawnee Smith out the nearest window, so there's another point in the movie's favor.

  • Leslie says:

    Let's not forget that actual learnin' was had, with everyone — even those who gave birth — vastly improving their test scores.

    Sweeney fans: I just found *Strange Luck* for online watching at

  • Sally says:

    Not wanting anyone to think less of me but…I own this puppy on DVD. And no matter how many times I see it, I still giggle like a fool over two things: First, Shoop combining Denise's driving lesson with taking Chainsaw and Dave to the beach and Chainsaw flat out deadpanning, "Can I call my parents and tell them I won't be home. EVER." and second, Chainsaw's "I don't know anything. I DON'T KNOW ANYTHING!!!" freakout nightmare.

    And Mark Harmon? Made of hot, that one.

  • Clairezilla says:

    I just watched this, like, two days ago! I remember it fondly from way back when, but watching it now (at almost 30) made me think, "Damn teenagers, they're so irritating!"

  • Shannon says:

    I love this movie! I have to watch it whenever it is on tv. I just went to IMDB to look up the cast to see what most of them are doing now and learned that Gary Riley, who played Dave, died on June 10, 2007.

  • k says:

    Anlyn – One of my friends is convinced John Barrowman from Torchwood/Dr Who is the science fiction love child of Mark Harmon and Michael Weatherly. Going into the season finale of NCIS with all the "someone DIES!" promos, she kept emailing me that as long as John Barrowman's parents were okay at the end, she could watch the episode.

  • Christine says:

    My sister and I still quote this movie. We should, the video was a month over due. The late fees ended up being like $50

  • Karen Longo says:

    This is one of my all time favorite cheezy 80's flicks! My favorite is the student who asks for a bathroom pass on the first day, and doesn't return until the final exam. And he got the highest score on the test! Aah, good times!

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