My apartment only has one chair right now. So while my roommate and her boyfriend enjoyed a meal and movie together at the table this past Saturday afternoon, I squatted on the floor, headphones on, eating dinner with a teaspoon. He was off to Dublin in the morning, so this was me giving them (about ten feet of) space in our narrow Brooklyn apartment.
Netflix ruined all that. Specifically, the cult-comedy prequel “Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp”.
By the end of its eight half-hour episodes, “WHAS:FDC” transcends the hilarious teen-flick satire of the 2001 film — and the wish-fulfillment conventions of classic film reunions — to reach a singular absurdist nirvana.
That the series’ leads are now about twice the ages of their characters just cues viewers to embrace its self-conscious, otherworldly flavour of funny. Shofars toot. Toxic sludge spills. Lovers careen through first kisses, engagements, objections at the altar, marriage, and divorce in the space of a few hours. All the while, just out of sight, anti-camp conspirators of “the government” brood with apocalyptic menace.
You get the impression that the whole thing emerged from the bull-session to end all bull-sessions around creator/star Michael Showalter’s kitchen table.
“Wet Hot American Summer” arrives like a visitation from an alternate universe where champions of culture and celebrity make art for art’s sake and “Pixels” never happened. The show not only returns Amy Poehler, Paul Rudd, Bradley Cooper, Elizabeth Banks, and other comedic luminaries who hit the A-list since the first film; it inducts the likes of Kristen Wiig, Jon Hamm, Michael Cera, Jordan Peele, and Lake Bell into its cool-kid comedy sorority.
There are no cheap cameos or tacked-on roles. Each brings a particular and unexpected moment of hilarity to propel the show through its tight four hours.
All that is to say that, giggling and spit-taking my way through a binge watch, I shamefully disrupted any semblance of quiet my roommate and her boyfriend may have wanted from their evening. But it’s also to point out just how impossible “WHAS” appears against the long history of half-hour TV sitcoms.
In another era of television — say, 2013 — this feat of originality and production value wouldn’t have been considered a serious possibility.
The overflowing talent and stature of the cast (huge enough that John Slattery’s pervy Broadway derelict and Chris Pine’s hermetic rock god didn’t even make that list) is only the first aspect of the show to defy convention.
Jokes aim narrow rather than broad. The affected exoticism of American Jews returned from Israel, the peculiar rituals of theatre auditions, and journalists’ newsroom egomania all make the cut. Episodes blend into one another, with the last scene of one often tacked onto the beginning of the next. Against trope, lust wins out over love. (Total freedom isn’t all upside though: Showalter imagines middle-aged camp counselors and super spies into his dreamy summer of 1981, but nary a speaking person of colour.)
There’s no question that “WHAS” could not exist without Netflix.
Since “House of Cards” upended the TV drama two-and-a-half years ago, the streaming service has served as a kind of sandbox for innovative serial filmmaking. As it landed, showrunner Beau Willimon gushed about Netflix’s hands-off approach to Ars Technica’s Nathan Mattise:
Netflix isn’t producing the show; it’s simply operating as the company licensed exclusively for its service. So Willimon and the creative team had “virtual complete control and freedom.” Unlike nearly all new scripted television, they weren’t even getting formal notes from their ‘network’ in this instance.
“At the very beginning they said and promised, ‘We believe in you and want you to make the show you want to make. Because whatever show you want to make is the one we want to air. You know better than us,'” Willimon says. “That takes an incredible amount of boldness but also business savvy to take that step. It emboldens you to take risks and try things maybe other creative teams would stop themselves before, saying, ‘Oh, it will never make it past network.’ You never felt like you had a network breathing down your neck and I think that’s conducive to creativity.
Netflix makes room for risks because the site doesn’t have to worry about time slots, those hour and half-hour blocks when networks tether their entire viewership to one show at a time. While Amazon ties its offerings to an expensive Prime subscription and Hulu clings to network and cable streams, the former DVD mailer has staked its future on curating exclusive quality content. That’s great for viewers. Each standout show, no matter how offbeat, cements subscribers’ loyalty and brings new ones into the fold. As a result, Netflix has multiplied the breadth and kind of stories that screenwriters can tell for mainstream audiences.
Titles like “Orange is the New Black,” “Sense8,” and even “Gracie and Frankie” break through the numbing sameness of televised personhood with stories hinging on intersectional queer, class, and racial identities. Documentaries “Blackfish,” “The Square,” and “Hot Girls Wanted” achieved rare impact on the broad culture through access to Netflix’s massive viewership. “Bloodline” and “Daredevil” serve vivid, cheerless cinematography to small screens. If Netflix has a signature (other than “Buffy” reruns) it’s the artistic surprise.
Comedies have only just begun to explore the possibilities of no-holds-barred television. The unlikely fourth season of “Arrested Development” was a first taste — that possibly the least broadcast-friendly critical favourite ever aired could find a home again was a revelation. But the shows that followed have largely kept pace with the edgiest material on NBC or FX.
Netflix originals “Gracie and Frankie” and “Scrotal Recall” hardly break the sitcom mould.
Tina Fey’s “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” updated her innovative “30 Rock” style for streaming. But she actually created the show for NBC and it still feels like that network’s other top-tier sitcoms.
It’s not surprising that comedy showrunners have mostly been happy to just dip their toes in the water.
“Kimmy Schmidt’s” imagined Today show chyron “BREAKING NEWS: WHITE WOMEN FOUND” over a much smaller “Hispanic woman also found” is a wink and nod through the gauze of network palatability — satire that relies on sneaking a message from writer to viewers behind the censor’s back. Fey and her peers have built careers colouring between the lines, even as they bury big middle fingers in the brushstrokes.
Showalter’s “WHAS” emerges from a less sanitised milieu. Since the first “Wet Hot” movie, nothing he’s done has broken through the wall of noise to penetrate the cultural consciousness. (Any big fans of “They Came Together” out there?) Netflix’s go-with-the-flow style seems to have unleashed again the genius he poured into the first film.
Right now, the only other Netflix original comedy to fully take advantage of that opportunity is the cartoon “Bojack Horseman.”
Cartoons have never wanted for absurdity. (Just ask Seth MacFarlane how much limpid sap he can wring from a flaccid man-chicken fight gag.) “Horseman” stands out from the herd for subject matter too subtle for stoned teenage boys, dentists’ waiting rooms, and other drivers of sweet syndication bucks.
Creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg told The Verge that he’s used the series’ whimsy to address tough themes:
I wanted to tell a [story] that I felt was honest, and I think a lot of shows that I see are not honest about sadness. I wanted to talk about it, and how hard it is to not be sad for some people. So I think the best way to do that was a wacky cartoon starring a talking horse. I’m really interested in this idea of the very dark and the very wacky kind of rubbing up against each other. And that contrast to me feels very fresh and interesting. I really like the idea of going to really wacky places but also to really dark places and kind of pushing on both sides of “What is the spectrum that this show can be?”
That spectrum of potential for “Bojack,” “Wet Hot,” and other Netflix comedies remains almost entirely unexplored. But there’s promise in their lineup; the 2016 show “Flaked” features “Arrested Development”‘s Will Arnett — also the voice of “Bojack” — as a struggling guru. And more experiments are sure to follow.
More importantly, Netflix has set a new standard of choice for comedy writers. Why would a passionate showrunner dump her baby into television’s emulsified content soup when a creative haven exists online? Expect radical comedy to spread across media as the threat “Well, I’ll just take it to Netflix then!” grows in power. And, as legacy premium networks like HBO adapt to Netflix-like business models, look for dams to break and better comedies to appear alongside big-name dramas in their still-abbreviated lineup. Netflix hasn’t just cleared space for great comedy on its own servers, it’s set to rekindle the entire TV genre.
Appropriately, “Wet Hot American Summer” spits fire satire without skewering anyone. The show has more shtick than burns; it leaves the impression that its creators love each of their targets. “WHAS” imagines a funnier, weirder world with room for all sorts in its bunkhouse – and, one imagines, in its Netflix queue. Season one closes to the same half-earnest warmth that ended the movie. Sure, there’s evil in the world. Boys learn the hard way they won’t “get” girls with their nice-guy routine. Heroes die. But the sun still shines over “Camp Firewood” as campers frolic in the yard and an upbeat electric guitar in the closing credits. A friendly trucker picks up a hitchhiker, who gazes with corny sincerity down the road at an unknown destination. He says, “Let’s roll.”