Hunkering Down for Doinkage with Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp

Has any film been vindicated by history more times over than Wet Hot American Summer? Although it tanked in limited theatrical release in 2001, it later found its audience on DVD, and over time it turned into a treasure trove of pre-mega-fame performances. I first saw the movie in 2004, loved it, and have cherished it ever since. So when news of a Netflix prequel series surfaced, I allowed myself some excitement.

The key word there is “some”. Like anyone old enough to remember when the wounds created by the second Star Wars trilogy were still fresh, I instinctively flinch at the word “prequel”. They run a high risk of raising questions no one was asking and providing unsatisfactory answers to them. I don’t think many people were clamoring to know what led up to the events of Wet Hot American Summer, but David Wain and his writers manage to tell a hilarious story with few disappointments, and that creates a lot more good will than it destroys.

For the uninitiated: Wet Hot American Summer takes place on the last day of camp at Camp Firewood on August 18, 1981. As for the series, well, the subtitle, First Day of Camp, says it all, with the entire season taking place nearly two months prior on June 24. In both the movie and the show, there’s a lot of hooking up, a lot of attempted hooking up, and a heaping mountain of absurd humor laced throughout.

Since First Day of Camp is based on a property that existed many years before it, the first order of business is assessing whether someone totally new to the franchise can properly appreciate it. To that end I will say that I think one can watch FDOC without having seen the movie and still grok most of the important character pairings and dynamics and enjoy it on its own merits. But that person is not going to get the same tickle as someone who was intimately familiar with the film years before the prequel existed is going to get from recognizing all the connections and putting things together as the season plays out. I think the effect is even diluted if you watch the movie for the first time now, here, in 2015, and then jump immediately into FDOC. Just about every reference you could hope to see reprised in the show makes an appearance. Anyone who likes insane comedy will get something out of it, but this is for the longtime fans above all else.

It will be much to the relief of those stalwart fans that most of the new characters integrate smoothly and successfully with the veterans. I’m not sure if you can technically consider H. Jon Benjamin to be “new”, but I enjoyed his expanded role. David Wain continues his tradition of giving himself juicy make-out opportunities by casting himself as Yaron, an Israeli soccer counselor who constantly insinuates himself between Michael Showalter’s Cooper and his girlfriend Donna Berman (played by Lake Bell). Michael Cera, as disgraced lawyer Jim Stansel, should smile and swagger as often as he does here, because it helps more of his jokes stick and gives them a pleasantly infectious energy. With the surprising exception of Kristen Wiig, I enjoyed all of the Camp Tigerclaw scenes (Josh Charles’s angry pouty foxtrot in episode 7 is a particular highlight). John Slattery is a lot of fun as guest theater director Claude Dumet. And it’s almost superfluous to even mention Jon Hamm, because he’s so good at everything and it’s just no flippin’ fair.

My favorite newbie, however, is actually one of the kids. Thomas Barbusca[1] plays Drew, the obnoxious nemesis of David Bloom’s mild-mannered Kevin Appleblatt, as the apex of human achievement in complete douchebaggery, and proves repeatedly that small children plus hard cursing equals comedy gold. He even manages to give Paul Rudd’s Andy Fleckner a run for his money in the unapologetic jerk department. You’ll root for Kevin, but you’ll blow your kidneys out laughing at Drew.

Pictured: The burp king of Westchester.

My disappointments are few and minor, but plural. Most of the Elizabeth Banks arc bored me to tears; a little more interaction with her coworkers, especially Jordan Peele and Paul Scheer, might have smoothed that over somewhat. I could have used a little more Abby Bernstein, and a LOT more David Hyde Pierce, and considering that Jake Fogelnest was one of the writers, I greatly anticipated an appearance from Silas, which I don’t think we got, though given the show’s light-speed pace I may have blinked and missed it.

One thing I appreciate about First Day of Camp is that in a world of binge-watching, they were able to exercise some restraint on their portion size. I think eight episodes is close to the right amount for this sort of fare. I already have a hard time binge-watching literally anything, and absurdist farce can really sap your strength when consumed in large doses. FDOC is more manageable in a single sitting than, for example, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt or Stella. Of course, that means you’re just going to miss it that much more when you’ve successfully crammed it all down your gullet in one day. I’m already ready for my second day of camp.

You either die a cult hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the mainstream. If Wet Hot American Summer is the mainstream, then I’d say comedy is in pretty great shape.

[1] (whom Jonathan, of all people, recognized from a guest spot on The Thundermans)

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