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Ah, do we look on anything more fondly than our memories of summer camp? While no one likely ever really thought we needed a sequel to the 15-year-old Wet Hot American Summer — let alone an entire season of TV — it works so well that we struggle to figure out why it did not happen sooner.
In every sense of the word, Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp comes drenched in nostalgia. Just like the movie that preceded it, First Day of Camp effectively lampoons almost every iconic Hollywood idea from the late 1970’s through the 1980’s in the most indirect way possible. The show contains DNA from films like Meatballs, The Goonies, and even the Rambo series (the homages are obvious), but the series has enough sense to use these ideas in its own unique, fresh way. Despite being a turbulent time in our history, the films that came out of this era often capitalized on a sense of gung-ho patriotism, and an essence of whimsy found in the youth of middle class America. The jokes within First Day of Camp are fast and outrageous, never really taking anything — even the supposedly dramatic — moments seriously. There’s a balance between in-world absurdity, and intentionally poor production quality that oscillates the comedy somewhere between Austin Powers and Danger Five in the way that it handles the satire of a specific era.
On a deeper level, the show also capitalizes on the nostalgia of those who grew up with Camp Firewood and the original Wet Hot American Summer. It’s rare to see a prequel/sequel that has such a genuine reverence for what came before it, but also requires almost zero reliance on that material to generate laughs. That being said, while one could easily watch the Netflix series having never seen the original and not miss a beat, the show is truly meant for those who know and love the original. The series sets up certain storylines, provides context for certain absurdly hilarious moments from the film — such as why a camp chef/veteran is friends with a can who can perform autofellatio — and fleshes out many of the original film’s one-note characters.
Speaking of characters, it’s a genuine treat to see that they were able to get everyone back on board and willing to once again partake in such harebrained action — albeit in varying capacities. Many of the returning actors spent the fifteen year gap from the original developing respectable movie careers — see: Bradley Cooper, Elizabeth Banks — which only adds to the humor of the proceedings. However, some of the storylines work better than others. For example, watching Andy (Paul Rudd) pine after Katie (Marguerite Moreau) works amazingly because of Rudd’s commitment to Andy’s exaggerated apathy, and watching Gene (Christopher Meloni) slowly devolve into his Vietnam veteran persona — replete with goatee and bandana — is endless fun. Others strong moments include a rock and roll reporter going undercover among the campers, McKinley (Michael Ian Black) getting close to Ben (Bradley Cooper), and a government conspiracy that threatens to decimate the entire camp.
They’re all considerably more enjoyable than watching Coop (Michael Showalter) deal with a love triangle involving himself, his girlfriend Donna (Lake Bell), and Israeli counselor Yaron (David Wain). Coop really gets the short end of the stick during the season in terms of material; his character represented our way into the camp in the original — a sort of Bill Murray in Meatballs — but now that we know this world, his nice-guy persona eats time better spent on more interesting characters. The same goes for when the show tries to focus in on the campers themselves — these storylines lack the manic energy that the show needs to make its laughs work. It’s also a shame that many of the more effective storylines never cross paths. Everything has a self-contained feel that really reminds us that this isn’t a movie, and prevents some of the great ensemble moments from the original — such as the “meet back here in ten years” scene.
It’s a testament to the legacy of the original Wet Hot American Summer that the series managed to sign on so many impressive celebrity cameos. From John Slattery as a particularly creepy Broadway producer to Michael Cera as a small-time lawyer, every episode is packed with big names who only add to the zany atmosphere of the camp. H. Jon Benjamin finally shows up in person, and we see just how his unique voice bonded with a can of vegetables. Out of all of the cameos, Jon Hamm gives arguably the best performance — which is saying something considering their overall quality — as The Falcon: President Reagan’s personal assassin. Hamm imbues the character with a dignified gravitas and intensity that once again proves that comedy could actually be his true calling.
Whether you’ve seen Wet Hot American Summer or not, First Day of Camp is an easy Netflix series to recommend. The show dives headlong into absurd humor while retaining a certain heart and lightness of being that can actually tug one’s heartstrings at times. Although some storylines don’t work nearly as well as others, so much here — from the writing to the celebrity cameos — is done so right that it’s easily forgiven. More than anything else, the success of these episodes prove that Camp Firewood can sustain new material, and we could very easily get on board with Wet Hot American Summer: Second Day of Camp in the future.