How does one begin to analyze a show like Wet Hot American Summer: First Day at Camp? Typically, I discuss key plot points and how they suit my personal take on the overall narrative of films, games and movies. Doing something like that with this show is kind of impossible. So much of what happens is obviously too zany, ridiculous, and downright improbable to take seriously. That’s kind of the point, though. Part of what made the 2001 movie that this Netflix show is based off of so special were the moments that defied all sense of logic.
WARNING: This review may contain some spoilers for Wet Hot American Summer: First Day at Camp. While i don’t think knowing about anything that’s going to happen will necessarily spoil it for you, feel free to scroll down to “final thoughts” for a brief summation.
Humor is one of the most subjective things out there. I realize that. I also realize that this show will not suit everyone’s taste when it comes to comedy. I personally thought this “miniseries” was hilarious — I’m also a big dumb man-child at heart. There is a lot of things in First Day at Camp that are unequivocally stupid, for lack of a better term. It’s the kind of stupid that you can’t help but smile at, though. There are things that happen that I can’t believe are actually on the show. Only demented minds like Michael Showalter and David Wain could come up with this stuff.
There is a small method to this madness, though. They didn’t just crap the show together. I noticed that they tied some things back to the movie I wasn’t expecting. One of Gail’s (Molly Shannon) ex’s she briefly mentions in passing, Jonas — turns out to be none other than an amnesiac(?) Gene before he went batshit crazy. Also, Beth (Janeane Garofalo) mentions Jim Stansel in the movie, but you never get to find out who it is. Until now. Turns out he was an in-over-his-head lawyer (Michael Cera) who ends up being murdered by The Falcon (Jon Hamm), an assassin assigned to wipe out all of the people who know about the chemical spill near Camp Firewood by none other than President Ronald Reagan himself. Yeah, it gets pretty out there. Still, there are some really great moments that actually say a lot about coming of age in general. Part of this series focuses on Kevin, a new arrival at camp, who takes a liking to one of the girls. He tries his damndest to win her over, and even though she does seem into him she ultimately hooks up with the little ginger asshole who trolls everyone in camp. It’s not a happy story, but it is super realistic. All of us who ever experienced not being the cool guy all know that bitter feeling of rejection. Kevin’s story very much mirrors Cooper’s, who seems to experience that rejection almost constantly.
Some of the added cast and cameos are the best part of Wet Hot American Summer this time around. The likes of Jordan Peele, John Slattery, Chris Pine and even Weird Al Yankovic help round out the guest spots on the series, but my favorite guest appearance has to be Jon Hamm as The Falcon. There is a fight scene between him and Gene in particular that is exceptionally hilarious. The laughs keep coming as Falcon turns out to be a double agent working for the good guys, but Beth is quick to point out he murdered several innocent people. Gene and Falcon try in vain to explain how the murders were justified, but make no sense whatsoever. That was one of my personal favorite moments of the whole show.
It’s clear that several cast members of the movie attained a large level of success since 2001. Unfortunately, I think their fame at least mildly influenced the plot of the show. This is most notable with Andy (Paul Rudd) and Lindsay (Elizabeth Banks), who played fairly minor roles in the original. Rudd is essentially propelled to the show’s leading man, focusing a great deal of the plot on his budding relationship with Katie, and becoming comfortable with performing at the Electro City show. Lindsay, who was little more than eye candy the first time around, is crucial to the plot of First Day at Camp. Lindsay is pretty much living out the plot of Never Been Kissed, where she is a journalist posing as a teenager trying to get a hot scoop. Eventually she uncovers a story involving a mysterious musician who basically lives in a shed that culminates in her thwarting an assault on Camp Firewood. Amy Poehler and Bradley Cooper also play much more prominent roles this time around, as the theater group’s performance is a huge aspect of the story.
I’m not really complaining, I was just hoping I’d see more of my personal favorite characters more often. As funny as Poehler, Rudd, Cooper, and Banks are, I’d much rather see more of Gene, JJ, Neil and Victor. There are hilarious moments with these four, but most of the show relegates them to background work. Gene probably gets way more screen time on the show than he did in the movie, but Christopher Meloni just stole the show. I feel like the show just wasn’t as good when he wasn’t on screen.
I’d be remiss not to bring up the music on the show. Craig Wedren (frontman for the obscure, but surprisingly popular Shudder To Think) created music for a great deal of the show, including the song Andy performs in the cabin in the 7th episode. Titled I am a Wolf, You Are the Moon, the performance by most of the cast felt like an instant classic moment. It reminded me of when Stillwater sings Tiny Dancer a capella on their tour bus in Almost Famous. Most of the time, it’s hard to imagine these 40+ year olds are playing teenagers, but there is just something instantly nostalgic about this tune. Here’s a link to the song below:
You can find more of Wedren’s work here. Check out some of Shudder To Think while you’re at it. My friend Billy actually got really into them after watching this show, and was a little personally humiliated that he had never heard of them before. Given the time that they were playing music, they definitely were ahead of their time. The music is very strange. If you have time, check them out.
What I love most about this show is that it knows how stupid it is. Instead of pulling any punches, they allow themselves to totally let loose for the sake of comedy. Nothing is off limits as the plot gets increasingly ridiculous, but I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. I almost find it hard to believe that almost the entire cast showed up once again for this and fully committed to being as out there as possible. I like to think it is because they have so much fun, and that it shows on screen. Hopefully we can expect something else on Netflix from Showalter and Wain sometime in the near future.
Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp is absurd, asinine, and probably offensive. It’s also hilarious. While I won’t admit to it being better than the cult classic movie from which this spawned, I will say that it was a worthwhile offering. It definitely succeeds in doing justice to the original, while managing to provide all-new laughs. Some jokes are re-used, but only the best ones. Throw out all reason, and just enjoy it with a clear head. If you aren’t a fan of irreverent, Monty Python-style humor, you will probably HATE this show. This was right up my alley, though. I hope you’ll give it a chance.
What’s Good: Gene and Python’s showdown, David Hyde Pierce spewing obscenities at Richard Schiff, H. Jon Benjamin
What’s Not-so-good: The script kind of relies a little too much on the big Hollywood names