Netflix’s ‘Wet Hot American Summer’ Is A Wonderful, Idiotic Mess
If you've seen the original, you'll love this show. If you haven't seen the original, you'll love this show. It's a great show.
This is a review of the entirety of Netflix’s Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp. It contains spoilers.
What a time to be alive; when no piece of mildly popular entertainment stays dead.
The Frankenstein-ing of deceased, cultish properties kicked off with Arrested Development’s unlikely fourth season (brilliant, but patchy), crescendoed in pop culture relevance with the Kickstarter record-breaking Veronica Mars film (fine, for fans) and reached its nadir in 2015 with Entourage: The Movie (an actual thing that happened).
It’s a trend that’s resulted in some middles and lows and not much more. Unless Fuller House defies expectations by investigating the wreckage of a family rocked by death, addiction and failed Alanis Morrisette flings, the future of resuscitated properties looks bleak.
And yet, these are the circumstances under which David Wain and Michael Showalter were able to stage a revival of their underseen, oversexed 2001 flop Wet Hot American Summer, a delirious spoof of hormonal ‘80s teen comedies in which emotions run high and the pants run even higher.
A prequel TV series, subtitled First Day of Camp, dropped onto Netflix this past Friday, where it was met by the open arms of comedy geeks who had blacked out their calendar months in advance, and late-night Netflix surfers whose state of inebriation would only enhance the surreal show’s intended effect. The average punter, drawn in by the now-marquee names of its stars, will perhaps be left bewildered by the first episode. However, if they stick with it, eight episodes later, they might be changed entirely. (Or, you know… just entertained.)
That’s how euphoric its finale feels. Unlike every other years-later television revival or decades-late movie sequel, First Day of Camp somehow recaptures the magic of the original, used the 180-month distance to accumulate emotional weight, and repackaged the comedy in a model that pays off for first-timers and old-timers alike.
It also introduces us to redheaded camp bully Drew, “the fuckin’ burp fight king of Westchester.” What a time to be alive indeed.
For the uninitiated, Wet Hot American Summer took place on the last, eventful day of a Jewish summer camp. Directed by Wain and co-written by Showalter, it starred their colleagues from cancelled sketch show The State – including Michael Ian Black, Ken Marino and Joe Lo Truglio – as camp counsellors, alongside some larger names, lending authenticity: Janeane Garofalo, Molly Shannon and David Hyde Pierce. Friends and young comics were brought in to play the remaining 16-year-old counsellors: Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks, Amy Poehler, Bradley Cooper. You know – nobodies.
The ahead-of-its-time spoof earned a paltry $295,000 in U.S. cinemas and was decimated by critics. (Roger Ebert wrote his takedown to the tune of “Camp Grenada (Hello Muddah, Hello Father)”, indicating that, in this instance, he was seriously out of touch with the direction of modern comedy.) Over the next fifteen years, the reputation of its performers began to blossom, as did the film’s standing among aficionados of strange, bite-sized comedy. By the time Tumblr turned up, its GIFs were everywhere.
Someone had to fund a second stint at Camp Firewood. Netflix was that someone. Netflix, seemingly, is always that someone.
Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, as the title suggests, takes place eight weeks prior to the events of the flick, and for the most part, the cast has held up well. (Paul Rudd, in particular, appears as if he has stepped out of amber to shoot his scenes.) They’re joined by a healthy helping of cameoing newcomers, eager to bask in the reflected glory: Jason Schwartzman, Kristen Wiig, Michael Cera, Josh Charles, Jon Hamm, Lake Bell, Randall Park, Richard Schiff, “Weird Al” Yankovic, Michaela Watkins, John Slattery, Bruce Greenwood, Jordan Peele, Rich Sommer, Paul Scheer. It’s like The Love Boat for hipsters. Chris Pine even appears as a hermit rocker — unearthed by Elizabeth Banks’ deep-cover reporter Lindsay — and has the honour of performing the picture’s original anthem, “Higher & Higher”. (It’s at this precise moment the show achieves transcendence.)
Usually, with these kinds of comedies, the plot is arbitrary. First Day of Camp, however, is actually a neat narrative feat; bouncing around from sketch to sketch, re-centering its focus each episode on a different batch of performers, and yet still building to a cohesive and all-encompassing climax.
The main threads involve Rudd’s rebellious Andy romancing the snobby Katie (Marguerite Moreau) while performing in camp musical Electro/City (itself an opus); Bradley Cooper and Amy Poehler’s romantically-challenged theatre couple being sexually awoken by other, unlikely people; Christopher Meloni’s chef wrestling with his violent past ahead of his impending nuptials with Molly Shannon’s arts and craft counsellor; building tensions between Camp Firewood and its WASP-y neighbour Camp Tigerclaw; and a government conspiracy that goes all the way to the top – so much so, Ronald Reagan himself (Showalter) has to turn up to sort things out.
Despite those goofy plot lines, not to mention the inherent absurdity of forty-somethings playing horny teens, First Day of Camp finds room for more than a few genuinely moving moments. The budding romance between the just pubescent campers Kevin and Amy – derailed constantly by Drew, literature’s greatest villain – is a heartbreaker, and Ben’s ushering out of the closet by McKinley is played with satisfying sweetness by Cooper and Black.
That said, the goofy, absurd, horny comedy is the main attraction. Literally everyone kisses tongue-first at Camp Firewood, and the demonstrations of prophylactic use by both sexes are giddily irresponsible. If we are to measure quality by GIF production, First Day of Camp is already rivalling its predecessor, despite only existing for three days.
As ingenious as Wet Hot American Summer was, in this episodic format, Wain and Showalter have found the best medium for their brand of comedy. (Their most recent movie, They Came Together, is funny enough, but the joke wears out quickly.) Even better than the ten-minute eps of Childrens Hospital (from the WHAS hivemind), First Day of Camp offers the opportunity for a breather every half hour, still inviting us to invest in something bigger overall.
Maybe that’s why I – weirdly — found the final episode so emotional. I only discovered Wet Hot American Summer in 2008, long after much of its cast had gained recognition elsewhere, and once the film’s cult status had been etched onto the historical tablet. Still, to witness everyone’s return to Camp Firewood, delight on their faces, with entire careers and lives bridging the fifteen years between the movie and the show… well, that’s potent stuff. It culminates with a sing-along that delivered more of a dopamine rush than any other thing I’ve seen in a decent while. As funny as First Day of Camp is, ‘euphoric’ is truly the most accurate adjective for it.
Reunions aren’t always this sweet. Apparently David Faustino wants to mount a Married with Children do-over next, and we might not get another season of Wet Hot American Summer to soften the blow. Remember how good we had it in August of 2015. It’ll just be like that wonderful hour in Waterville.
Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp is now streaming on Netflix.