Even in this brave new world of micro-niches and fan service as a legitimate business model, the very existence of Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp is unexpected, somewhat unnecessary, and more than a little odd. But these are exactly the circumstances in which creators David Wain and Michael Showalter best operate.
The new eight-episode series launched in full on Netflix early this morning, sating a slow-building but still relatively tiny cult following amassed over the last 14 years since the full-length movie Wet Hot American Summer made a meager $292,102 back in 2001, despite starring future world-beaters like Bradley Cooper, Paul Rudd, Amy Poehler, and Elizabeth Banks. Wain and Showalter had long threatened some sort of encore performance, but it took the streaming service’s Magic Resurrection Wand to finally make it happen.
But you probably know all that if you’ve made it even this far—in fact, you’re probably wearing a Camp Firewood T-shirt right now. Which also means you’ll dig First Day of Camp from the very first freeze-frames backed by the jangling keyboards of Jefferson Starship’s “Jane.” Whether you’ll love it—and whether the uninitiated will be able to wrap their heads around it at all—is a more vexing question.
Wain and Showalter’s goofy, gooey campfire concoction of deadpan anti-comedy and outright absurdity remains on full display here. They’re still riffing on the ’80s camp comedies and coming-of-age clichés the original movie mined—unrequited love, nerds, bullies, boners—but the larger canvas of episodic TV allows them to paint the corners with toxic waste, assassins, a mysterious cabin, a dramatic court case, and Ronald Reagan. The whole series—eight episodes at a half-hour per—takes place in one day; most likely, you’ll blow through it all in one night.
The movie, as you’ll no doubt recall, tackled the last day of camp; the show flashes back to the very first day, and as with the original, one of the overarching jokes here is the impossible number of things being accomplished in that time period. The added time and space afforded by this new format has a downside, though: While the movie bounces among its bits of dirty, inspired lunacy, the show sort of shambles. The character origin stories are meant to do a lot of the heavy lifting; all that background isn’t exactly essential, but Wain and Showalter have fun providing it anyway. Why is Gene calling himself “Jonas”? Who are these counselors who weren’t in the movie? Coop had a girlfriend?
There’s nothing wrong with playing to your audience, and lord knows the Wet Hot American crowd is a devoted one, but a few times too often, it feels like the show is setting up jokes with punchlines you’ll have to rewatch the movie to appreciate. Sure, Gene’s transformation from Jonas is amusing, but wouldn’t you rather just spend more time with Gene? (On the other hand, god bless gum-chomping sexpot Marisa Ryan’s backstory, which is a single brief and brilliant joke.)
The cast, of course, is ridiculous in multiple senses: Not only did every adult member of the 2001 crew return, but notable additions abound, creating a 30-deep bench that, spread over four hours of screen time, results in just the sort of hit-or-miss randomness you may or may not love. I wanted more of Ken Marino’s himbo bravado; I wanted less of lovelorn Michael Showalter. Michael Cera and Michaela Watkins brought unexpected smiles to my face every time they spoke, but for the first time in my life, I just wanted John Slattery to go away. Josh Charles’ ’80s preppy douchery has just the right whiff of Polo cologne, but Chris Pine’s reclusive rock star is stale whiskey. As for Rudd, who remains the star attraction, he gets some of the best or at least most nonsensical lines (“I’ll fart my way into that snatch”), and his dismissive dickhead line delivery always delights, but his courtship of Marguerite Moreau grows tedious.
As for Bradley Cooper, he fit easily among his ensemble equals back when he was an unknown, and gamely slides right back into place here, and sticks around way longer than you may expect given his elevated stature. Still, I was hoping for something a little more audacious from him, given that his role as a closeted camp theater instructor couldn’t be further from his recent Oscar-nominated turn mumbling and snipering his way through your uncle’s favorite movie. But just when I fear First Day of Camp might be losing me, David Hyde Pierce calls someone a “fuck dick of a shit butt” or Jon Hamm grimaces, and everything feels right in this tiny little corner of the world.
Is this new show better than the movie? No. Nothing here quite approaches Rudd’s cafeteria hissy fit, or the chase scene, or the trip into town, or everything that had to do with Christopher Meloni’s turn as Gene. It’s also hard not to see some parallels to Arrested Development here—another beloved, deep-benched niche comedy revived by Netflix. First Day of Camp isn’t quite as saggy as the AD revival, but it never quite rises above the enjoyable-diversion level, and it’s unlikely to win over any nonbelievers. Then again, who knows: Time helped make the original Wet Hot American Summer’s last day of camp a classic, so maybe 15 years later we’ll all be clamoring for a prequel to the first day, too.
Dan Eaton says “actually” way too often, has an unreasonable love of Arby’s roast beef, and watches just the right amount of TV and movies without jeopardizing his marriage. He writes about other things for other people, but they don’t let him swear.
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