Six episodes were provided for review purposes.
For a platform offering instant pop culture gratification, it’s not surprising that Netflix’s original programming slate has leaned heavily on two things: name recognition and wish fulfillment. Breaking into a crowded market of prestige dramas and genre TV? Bring in Kevin Spacey and the Wachowskis. Courting comedy and comic book fans? Resurrect Arrested Development and Daredevil. Improbably combining the appeal of both is Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, an eight-episode miniseries that acts as the prequel to a little-seen 2001 comedy starring a collection of erstwhile unknowns. Wet Hot American Summer was ridiculous, unpredictable, and hilarious. The same can be said of both the new Netflix miniseries, and how it came to be.
A lot has changed in the worlds of comedy, movies, and TV during the 14 years since Wet Hot American Summer was released. An entire cast of SNL stars has sprouted, bloomed, and taken root in Hollywood; a Marvel Cinematic Universe has come into existence; online streaming services are legion. But with each year, the footprint that Wet Hot American Summer has on the entertainment industry only gets bigger, no small feat for a micro-budgeted summer camp comedy. It’s hard to imagine anyone watching the movie back in 2001, looking at the assembled talent, and saying with confidence, “there’s a record-setting director, there’s a Golden Globe winner, and the guy having sex with Michael Ian Black in the woodshed will one day score a turkey of Oscar nominations,” but here we are.
Early in the original movie, there’s a bit where the characters promise to meet up in a decade to see how their lives have changed, a gag that only gets funnier when you consider what the Wet Hot American Summer gang have accomplished in the last decade and a half. In that time, creators David Wain and Mike Showalter, and half of the cast have gone on to produce other cult TV shows and movies, while the other half of that cast have become some of the biggest names around. Between Bradley Cooper, Amy Poehler, and Elizabeth Banks alone you’ve got over $1 billion in 2015 box office revenue. Meanwhile, Paul Rudd is working the Marvel beat, and Christopher Meloni remains a TV fixture.
That Wain and Showalter somehow reunited almost the entire original ensemble for what is, essentially, a 4-hour prequel movie is almost unbelievable. But just as astonishing is how well Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp maintains the vibe and sense of humor of the original. This is Netflix’s most impressive collection of actors and comedians to date, but that hasn’t stopped Wain and Showalter from making a miniseries that, like most of their projects, is decidedly not for everyone.
Rather than making good on the promised reunion in the future, First Day of Camp sticks to its surreal guns by tracking back to the opening day of Camp Firewood’s 1981 season, Wet Hot American Summer having taken place during its conclusion. The joke in 2001 was that the actors were all playing camp counselors ten years their junior. Now, the cast is all 14 years older, but playing even younger versions of Camp Firewood’s completely irresponsible staff. Though some of the performers look like they haven’t aged a day (scenes of just Ken Marino and Joe Lo Truglio might as well be long-lost footage from the original), a great deal of the fun comes from watching the cast revisit these youthful and oversexed characters from even further beyond the age when that would have made any sense.
Enjoying First Day of Camp isn’t as easy as just being able to recognize now-famous faces: Wain (who directs each episode) and Showalter (who gets most of the writing credit) specialize in absurdist and offbeat humor. Every joke is an inside one, and throwaway lines or gags can become secret handshakes among those in the know. Put another way: your enjoyment of the Netflix miniseries may depend on how excited you are to hear that a can of mixed vegetables and a “vase breaking” sound effect both appear in the first episode. Wain-Showalter comedy is less about construction than it is surprise and silliness, and Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp maintains the original’s love for bizarre tangents and non sequiturs.