Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp is the Netflixiest series to hit Netflix yet
Popular culture has such a nasty tendency of associating returns from the dead with unpleasantness. Zombies, vampires, mummies — they’re all faces that one greets with horror rather than excitement. And so when searching for an apt analogy for an entity returning from beyond the veil amidst full-throated cheers, there’s really just one way to go: Netflix’s new series Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp is the Jesus Christ of online-streaming original programming. But instead of Christ’s measly two-day waiting period, the collective devoutness of the WHAS faithful resurrected their graven idol after fourteen long years.
To those who have spent the interim years self-flagellating in the hope that their suffering would cosmically transmit the energy necessary to bring about a sequel, a prequel, something to follow up the beloved 2001 parody film, the wait has been worth it. The eight-episode prequel series First Day of Camp caters directly to its niche appeal without taking on the air of pandering. The degree of comic insularity, unmatched since the last time Netflix singlehandedly brought a cult comedy back to life, rewards viewers who are hip to the inside-jokes of this loony little universe. In this respect, it’s the Netflixiest show that the service has yet to unleash on its subscribers; a show designed for obsessive viewers to watch all at once, over and over again.
Creator David Wain doesn’t even put up a front of treating the eight episodes as anything other than arbitrarily divided parts of a single whole. The points at which one episode ends and another begins come seemingly at random; Wain even generates comedy from the format foisted upon him, picking up one episode fractions of a second after the previous one had ended, with the time spent buffering as some kind of extratextual pregnant pause.
Beyond matters of semantics, the program continues to blithely dispose of the conventions of serialized comedy. Wain protracts discrete plotlines across all eight episodes, weaving the strands of his A-, B-, and C-plots freely in and out of one another like a master seamster. Over the course of one, uninterrupted day (a time span that evokes other timeless teenage coming-of-age stories such as Dazed and Confused and Superbad, as well as the original film) the counselors and campers develop crushes, put a damper on those crushes, and then succumb to the scalding heat of their passionate flame when they return stronger than ever before. It’s a roller-coaster of a day,# a sensation not unknown to anybody who’s had the distinct and heady pleasure of wrestling with teenage hormones.
The comedy-nerd genuflections extend to the sprawling, awe-inspiring roster of talent assembled for this new enterprise. That Wain was able to reunite the core cast in the first place stands as a minor miracle, with stars such as Elizabeth Banks, Paul Rudd, and Bradley Cooper all balancing heavy movie schedules. Wain drapes another layer of metatextual hilarity over these scheduling difficulties, too, when he has Cooper’s character appear as “DJ Ski Mask”, conveniently obscuring the performer’s face to allow for an extra to slip in, and then pulling another gotcha when the ostensible stand-in pulls off his mask to reveal Cooper’s face. Considering the heavy stable of new talent Wain has pulled into the Wet Hot orbit, this series must’ve required the planning and coordination of the Invasion of Normandy. A-listers including Kristen Wiig, Lake Bell, Jason Schwartzman, Chris Pine, Michael Cera, Weird goddamn Al, and a double dose of Mad Men alumni with Jon Hamm and John Slattery all provided fresh faces around the camp. And, as is the case with everything at Camp Firewood, the program mines self-reflexive humor from the very fabric of its own reality; nary fifteen seconds can go by without a gag about the stretch of men and women well into their forties playing sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds.
At every turn, First Day of Camp privileges the viewers able to catch its unending volley of inward references, hurling callbacks like missiles in a kickball game. Some of them are as subtle as an inappropriately cued foley effect when various objects are tossed out of frame. # But in many instances, the individual characters’ arcs follow a parallel path as that of their end-of-summer selves. Gene, Christopher Meloni’s nonsense-spouting Vietnam vet-cum-mess hall custodian, starts the series as the peppy and preppy Jonas. Just as the original film sees Gene accepting his true, fridge-humping self, the prequel series sets him on a similar track, providing him with another reawakening when confronted by his past in the form of Falcon, a government assassin played by Jon Hamm at peak goofiness. Showalter’s Coop spends the day mooning over a girl who couldn’t be less interested in him, only this time that girl is the boundlessly charming Lake Bell as Donna, who’s smitten with the Israeli-transfer counselor Yaron, played by mastermind Wain.
First Day of Camp is an act of extreme populism, a nostalgia-driven machine with virtues all its own, not the least of which is its active willingness to give, give, give viewers exactly what it knows they want. They want Elizabeth Banks’ face slathered in BBQ sauce, and so when she’s dramatically reintroduced to the action, Banks is going to town on a sandwich. It reverses the fundamental human processing of indulgence; First Day of Camp makes bingeing feel good. The more you consume, the faster you consume, the better it feels.
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