Photo: Saeed Adyani / Netflix

Should You Bunk In For Wet Hot American Summer?

The cult comedy gets a serialized prequel...fourteen years later. Is it just so much bug juice, or will it leave you wanting s'more?

What Is This Thing?

It's the first day of camp, and everyone from the counselors to the cook to the parents ditching their kids for eight weeks to the put-upon camp director is determined to make 1981 the very best summer Camp Firewood's ever had! Assuming they don't drown, get shot with an arrow, get addicted to poppers working on the camp musical, or fall into puddles of toxic sludge.

When Is It On?

Whenever you want! Netflix will drop the entire eight-episode season July 31.

Why Was It Made Now?

In the old media era, the best a weird, niche-y movie like Wet Hot American Summer could hope was that the audience that missed it for the three minutes it played in theatres would find it on DVD -- which is pretty much exactly what it happened. But given that, since then, its stars have been nominated for Oscars and Emmys and are some of the most sought-after comedy performers working today, of course a weird, niche-y outlet like Netflix would exploit these people's joy in working together again and again to create a...weird, niche-y TV series that turns the movie into a full-on franchise! It seems safe to say this is a project that wouldn't exist at any other time in TV history.

What's Its Pedigree?

David Wain and Michael Showalter, who co-wrote the feature film on which the series is based, return here; Wain also directs and has a small role as Israeli soccer instructor Yaron, while Showalter reprises his role as Coop. Also returning from the original are [takes deep breath] Elizabeth Banks, Michael Ian Black, Bradley Cooper, Janeane Garofalo, Nina Hellman, Joe Lo Truglio, Ken Marino, A.D. Miles, Marguerite Moreau, Zak Orth, Amy Poehler, Paul Rudd, Marisa Ryan, Molly Shannon, Kevin Sussman. New additions include Lake Bell, Josh Charles, Jon Hamm, Jason Schwartzman, John Slattery, Rich Sommer, Michaela Watkins, and Kristen Wiig, among others. For funsies, why not try to think of all the times in the past ten years or so that you've seen two or seven of these people work together on something else? The 30 Rock/Childrens Hospital/Happy Endings/Parks & Recreation cross-pollination is so intense that when, for instance, Brian Huskey and Erinn Hayes did not show up in the first six episodes, I wondered if they had fallen ill.

...And?

I would imagine that all of us who looked forward to Netflix's Arrested Development revival have been somewhat more reserved with regard to Wet Hot American Summer because of how badly AD burned us. So it is with immense relief that I can report: First Day Of Camp is really good. Like the film that spawned it, it's goofy and strange; sometimes straightforwardly parodic and sometimes sly...sometimes in the same exchange -- and I have an example! This is the only joke I'm going to quote and I'm giving you all this warning so that if you don't want to be spoiled at ALL you can jump ahead to the next paragraph. Paul Rudd's Andy has just rolled into camp on his hog, jumping off at the last second to punctuate his entrance, and when I say "Paul Rudd's Andy," I mean a comically unconvincing stunt double in a black perm wig. Andy demands to know "Who beefed?" and then moves on to mocking his fellow counselor, McKinley (Michael Ian Black).

Andy: HA! Nice lady shorts, McKinley.

McKinley: Yeah, I got 'em from your mom's dresser. [flips him off with a flourish]

Andy: [gravely] Don't make fun of the guy who dresses my mom.

McKinley: [chastened] I'm sorry, man. I didn't realize-- I thought your mom was still dressing herself.

The show is dotted with tiny, ridiculous moments like that, which counterpoint the showier set pieces -- like everything that happens with Ben and Susie (Cooper and Poehler) and their production of the camp musical, for which they've attracted both a lecherous Broadway veteran (Slattery's Claude) and a battle-scarred choreographer (Watkins's Rhonda). Victor (Marino) is, of course crushing poon, as he will be the first to tell you, because he's definitely had sex; Gail (Shannon) is embarking on a marriage that is definitely not doomed; and Andy is going hard after Katie (Moreau) even though he's got no chance what with her boyfriend Blake (Charles) just across the lake at Camp Tiger Claw! And since it's a prequel, we also get the sometimes shocking backstory on Lindsay (Banks), Gene (Meloni), and that talking can of mixed vegetables (H. Jon Benjamin), because this is the kind of production where a can of mixed vegetables (a) has a backstory, and (b) talks.

Yesterday, I said of Zoo that it was the worst kind of show in that it's dumb but thinks it's smart. Wet Hot American Summer is the opposite -- smart playing dumb -- and thus is kind of the best.

...But?

I don't know why anyone who hadn't watched the movie would decide to start with this, but if they did, they would probably have a bad time; since it's a prequel, there are a lot of jokes that are based on stuff that will happen later in the chronology of this world and hence aren't intrinsically hilarious without that context. For those of us who do remember what these cast members looked like when they first played these roles, seeing some of them now, and I won't name names, might be a sobering reminder of all our mortality -- but then again, there's Rudd front and center looking not just like no time has passed but that maybe, in his specific case, it has actually been going in reverse? So that's comforting.

There's also a minor through-line involving one awkward first-time camper named Kevin (David Bloom) and his tentative pursuit of a nice girl named Amy (Hailey Sole) that I guess is supposed to give the show some "heart" but feels like an afterthought. The inner lives of the campers was not a plot element in the film, and for good reason.

...So?

If you've seen the movie, you've probably seen the movie one to four dozen times. It would be silly not to watch this too.

Readers liked this episode
What did you think?

Discussion

Explore the Wet Hot American Summer forum or add a comment below.