When I first started watching “Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp,” one of my first thoughts was … ‘this might be going off the rails a bit, I think this story is losing some of the realism of the source material.’
Then I remembered that the original movie its based on features a talking can of vegetables.
“First Day of Camp,” a new television follow up to the 2001 classic film “Wet Hot American Summer,” is a prequel you didn’t need but also didn’t realise that you really wanted. As long as you are willing to be in on the joke, “First Day of Camp” is a hilarious eight episode stretch in Netflix’s crowded summer of shows.
When “Wet Hot American Summer” first came out in 2001, it was a critical and box office bomb. Thanks to a successful DVD release and a lot of midnight showings, the comedy finally found the audience that it deserved. Director David Wain, co-writer and star Michael Showalter, and various cast members discussed a possible sequel for years. Then, the chance to do a prequel TV series on Netflix fell into their lap, and it seemed like the next logical step for Camp Firewood.
The only challenge is that most of the cast is now well into their 40s, making the possibility of playing a bunch of 16-year-olds even more challenging. Plus, “Wet Hot” is not the kind of film that was begging for backstory. “First Day of Camp” expertly uses everything working against it to its advantage. Yes, it knows that all of these actors looks too old. Yes, it knows that it is probably better if we don’t know why a can of vegetables can speak. But this is self-awareness at its best.
Like its predecessor, “First Day of Camp” takes place over the course of one day. This is even more of a challenge here, given that this is eight half hour episodes as opposed to one 97 minute feature. As the title suggests, the series takes place at the beginning of the summer of 1981 at Camp Firewood. Even though all of the actors (each one of them, even Oscar nominated movie star Bradley Cooper, returned for the show) are now older, they play characters who are younger than they were in the film, which came out 14 years ago.
However, passage of time is both a recurring theme and a running joke in the “Wet Hot” universe.
Think about the sequence from the film where the counselors go into town and slowly become drug addicts. It is revealed that these events all transpired over the course of one hour. Over the course of the first six episodes alone, there is a lavish theatrical production, a wedding, and a government conspiracy. If you’ve ever attended sleepaway camp, you might have noticed that time moves at a much stranger pace when you’re a kid away from home for the first time. Three weeks can feel like three years.
While the movie still feels superior to “First Day of Camp,” television works incredibly well for this story. Everything David Wain and the rest of this comedy team works on, from “The State” to “Stella” to “Wanderlust,” is known for extended riffs that go on for way too long, and somehow that is exactly what makes them so funny. This medium allows for endless amounts of that. “First Day of Camp,” like the movie, is endlessly rewatchable not because you’ll miss jokes the first time around, but because stuff that didn’t seem funny at all somehow becomes hilarious on a second, third, or fourth viewing.
Also, it allows us spend even more time with these characters and give them a little more depth even if they are basically live action cartoons. It is funny to see a side of Andy (Paul Rudd) where he actually has trouble getting the girl. It is also good to know that Coop’s (Michael Showalter) inability to understand relationships will remain constant, whether it is the first or last day of camp.
Meanwhile, the show also introduces a slew of new characters to Camp Firewood. Wain makes a hilarious recurring appearance as an Israeli camp counselor named Yaron, which would seem stereotypical had it not reminded me of a majority of counselors I once had at camp. Meanwhile, “Mad Men” star John Slattery proves that he deserves a second life in comedy with his performance as a theatre director who somehow ends up supervising a camp play while fellow “Mad Men” star Jon Hamm plays a character who is much funnier the less you know about him.
Prequels and reboots are big nowadays.
They usually apply to the kind of blockbusters with an expansive fictional universe, as opposed to comedies. There was no reason to create a “Wet Hot American Summer” prequel. Everybody involved takes full advantage of this. More than one character is secretly revealed to have a completely different identity than the one we once knew. In one of the show’s funniest scenes, one camper suddenly transforms into a teenager in one second. It is the kind of mythology shattering that once angered “Star Wars” fans.
However, the more you think about this, the more it makes sense for this world. “Wet Hot” was never meant to be realistic, and yet the enduring thing about it is the more surreal it gets, the more relatable it can be. The fact that it is a 1980s period piece also helps make the case that this is a timeless story. It is both very specific (the theatre they all sit in kept making me feel like I was watching a play back in my summer camp days) and very general.
“Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp” is the product of total creative freedom. Comedy can still be great even when a joke falls flat, and when that happens in “First Day of Camp,” it’s still a wonder to watch. The growing of this world makes it feel even more welcoming and by the end, you will also feel like you attended Camp Firewood, even though you never did.
All eight episodes of “Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp” debut on Netflix on July 31.
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