Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp

Netflix’s revival of the cult classic is TV’s reboot boom at its best.

Amy Poehler and Bradley Cooper in Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp.
Amy Poehler and Bradley Cooper in Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp.

Image courtesy of Netflix

“The end” does not mean what it used to. Which is to say, it does not mean the end. Once, Veronica Mars, Arrested Development, Full House, Coach, The X-Files, Heroes, 24, Roots, Twin Peaks, and The Muppets had all ended. Now, they have not. In 2015, any TV series with an ardent fan base can be revived, given new life by the combination of network desperation and streaming platforms’ bountiful budgets. Whatever one makes of this trend as a trend—and preliminary research suggests a person can wring her hands about the dearth of original ideas while using those very same hands to set her DVR to never, ever miss a moment of fresh Mulder and Scully—its results should vary widely. (What would a really good version of Full House look like? Not Full House.)

It will be hard, however, for most of these resuscitations to be as pleasing as the zany Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, which comes to Netflix this Friday. Wet Hot American Summer, the movie, arrived in theaters in 2001, where hardly anyone saw it. Set on the last day of Camp Firewood’s 1981 season, the movie, written by Michael Showalter and David Wain, both lackadaisically and incisively spoofs late ’70s and early ’80s coming-of-age movies as well as the actual summer camp experience. Its shaggy, sometimes surreal, sweet sensibility—along with the growing fame of a not incidental number of its stars, all of whom have returned for the Netflix version—eventually turned it into a cult phenomenon, as beloved on DVD as it had been ignored in theaters.

Wet Hot American Summer, the movie, was not perfect. It was too slapdash for that, with deep roots in improv and sketch comedy. Chris Meloni, playing a deranged Vietnam Vet, talked to a sentient can of vegetables and reached his emotional climax by humping a refrigerator. During the movie’s dramatic high point, an ancient Borscht Belt comedian (played by Showalter), told intentionally terrible jokes to a room full of hysterical laughing children. One montage followed the staffs’ descent into heroin addiction—during a one-hour jaunt into town. An unhinged, divorced arts-and-crafts counselor ran off with an emotionally mature pre-teen boy. Paul Rudd perfected the body language of being too cool for school. Most of the bits landed, some of them didn’t. Some of what didn’t, in the tradition of Zoolander, landed upon a fifth viewing. Good or bad, the movie had an easygoing attitude about its own antics, a relaxed vibe that mimicked not only a certain type of film but the feeling of summer itself, when the good blurs out the bad in a haze of freedom, booty shorts, grass stains, mildew, and lazy kisses.

Wet Hot’s loosey-goosey imperfection makes it a great candidate for a second life. Veronica Mars and Arrested Development, two shows that have already been reincarnated, in contrast, were both sharp and exacting—high-energy series with intricate plots and zinging lines. Re-creating them was an exercise in precision: Could the new products be as polished as the originals? Those shows are valedictorians: anything less than perfection is a let-down. But Wet Hot’s the class clown. One good laugh, and it has done its job.

The new episodes are a prequel, set on the first day of camp instead of the last. The prequel, for once, is a stroke of genius rather than a money-minting strategy. It means, among other things, Wet Hot American Summer, still has an ending. It leans into the joke of its cast members’ increasing age: in 2001, when the movie came out, the 20- and 30-something actors were playing 16 and 17. Fourteen years later, the even older actors are playing even younger. (Hollywood being what it is, most of them look exactly the same age.) Moreover, the format entertains fans who have memorized every line of the movie without alienating newbies because it fills in backstory in a straight-forward, chronological fashion. New viewers will enjoy watching a can of vegetables get imbued with the soul of a man, even if only those familiar with the movie have any idea what is in store for that can of vegetables.

Everyone from the movie has returned for the show, even now much more famous actors like Bradley Cooper, Amy Poehler, Rudd, and Elizabeth Banks. With eight episodes to stretch out in, Wain and Showalter continue to goof on summer camp tropes, while also goofing on nearly every other genre they can imagine, including court room dramas and hacker films. Supercilious Susie (Poehler) and closeted Ben (Cooper) oversee the production of Electro City, a feel-good musical about a man who arrives in New York City and winds up being electrocuted, an occasion to play around with actorly pretensions and Dirty Dancing. Firewood’s nemesis camp, Tiger Claw, is finally introduced, with Josh Charles playing Blake, an evil WASP who wears polo shirts and is a take on Richie Riches like James Spader’s character in Pretty in Pink. Elizabeth Banks’ Linsday is revealed to be starring in an ’80s version of Never Been Kissed—she’s a journalist planted at Firewood by a music magazine to get the real skinny on summer camp. Showalter’s Coop is on the short end of another love triangle, between the gorgeous Donna (Lake Bell) and Israeli counselor Yiron (Wain). (No piece of pop culture has been this Jewish since Seinfeld. There is a running joke involving a Shofar.)

In their genre send-ups, Wain and Showalter try to strip out as much detail as they can, leaving only the format’s ridiculous bones. In a throwaway joke, a woman writes down a phone number as “(phone)-number,” a perfect example of the duo’s style. Phone numbers on film, with that spell-breaking 555, are distracting and phony. It’s funnier, stranger to reduce that convention to its essence. Head of camp Beth (Janeane Garofalo) and head boy’s counselor Greg (Jason Schwartzman) get caught up in a storyline that involves toxic waste, assassins, computer hacking, and a courtroom climax, presented in barebones language that exposes its absurdity. “We need the code to break into the secret computer network!” Greg screams, before tearing a page from the printer full of gibberish symbols everyone can somehow read. During court, guest star Michael Cera saves the day by brandishing some disks that “contain all the evidence.”

The episodes unfurl in an excess of good-natured silliness. Ken Marino’s Victor is still an over-compensating virgin, wearing perfectly tight jean shorts and Birkenstocks. Lindsay convinces her magazine colleagues she can go undercover as a 16-year-old by flipping her hair. Yiron is a master at Devil Sticks. Ben and McKinley (Michael Ian Black) have a bravura conversation in which they come out to each other only by using the word “creative.” A boy-hating camper gets her period and becomes a woman—literally: a child actor is replaced by Marisa Ryan playing boy-crazy Abby Bernstein. Molly Shannon does a bananas version of the Electric Slide. Some of this will make you laugh, some of it won’t, but it all feels pretty good. Don’t sweat it, it’s summer camp.