“5000 words on summer camp. Make it good.”
There was a time when I was going to structure this review like it was a kid’s letter from camp to their parents. You know, talking about how great the experience was, how nice all the campers were, that eight fun-filled activity sessions with these guys simply weren’t enough, and that it’s been the hardest I’ve laughed away from home in a long time. I’d manage to work in a few more camp metaphors, too. But this revival is so glorious, I didn’t want to waste a single word on artifice and structure that could instead be spent telling you how good this series is.
This series’ source material, Wet Hot American Summer, is a delightful surprise of a film that turns a tired genre into something unpredictable and challenging. Whether you were a fan of the casts’ prior work in The State, or were stumbling across this madness for the first time, the film seems to hold a certain cultural resonance with the growing mob that has seen it. While this cast has reunited and permutated in various projects through the years, their style arguably being refined with each passing endeavor, the follow-up to Wet Hot was always treated as a Holy Grail of sorts. So for it finally to end up happening as a TV series on Netflix—and a prequel of all things, with the bulk of these actors supposed to be playing sixteen- and seventeen-year olds, it seems like our prayers had been answered. There was almost an Arrested Development season four degree of fanfare (which won’t be the only comparison between the two that’s raised) building up around its release, which is why it’s so very satisfying to see this project deliver in every respect.
First Day of Camp does a fantastic job of transporting us all back to humble Camp Firewood, in the simpler time of June 24, 1981. Such a trip is made clear through countless ‘80s regalia, whether it be the classic clothes, rampant montages, singular ‘80s song verses, and a gleeful amount of dated references. There’s also what is perhaps the worst (and best) portrayal of Ronald Reagan ever committed to film. Just like the movie showed us everyone’s final day at Camp Firewood, appropriately this prequel shows us their first day. The series slowly inches through this, with each episode spanning a few hours in the transformative day. The majority of this is spent going through the rigmarole of camp–lampooning every staple that enters its orbit–while also stringing about some larger plotlines, like the countless relationships being negotiated, the contents of a certain mystery cabin, and the approaching premiere of the musical, “Electro City.”
Even if they only made one episode, this would still feel like a success. There’s just so much joy going on here as every single actor looks like they’re having the most fun doing it. If there were any worries that some of this magic had been lost or that telling more stories with these characters was a stunted idea, those thoughts should immediately be put to bed in their bunks. Not a beat has been lost here, as these scripts course with brilliant, dopey wordplay and dialogue that moves faster than a match of tetherball. If you’re a fan of any of Wain and company’s other works, you’ll no doubt love what’s happening in First Day of Camp.
For those eager for nods and allusions towards the Wet Hot film, you won’t be disappointed, either. You’d even be wise to re-watch it before checking this series out. There is plenty of brilliant dot connecting being done (as well as a wonderfully bizarre They Came Together shout-out with Meloni’s character), whether it’s the birth of the Bee Keeper, Victor’s supposed playboy status, Lindsay’s diaphragm, or why Jon Benjamin’s counselor’s appearance is so “different” in the movie. If you love the film, you’re kind of going to lose your mind over everything that’s included and paid tribute to. This is an absolute love letter to the source material and it feels like fans made it.
While First Day of Camp obviously strives to associate itself with its source material, it also goes far to distance itself from cinematic conventions. For instance, as a series on Netflix it is allowed the luxury of letting storylines breathe, with each of them slowly advancing piecemeal rather than sloppily being juggled all at once. Surprisingly, the ways in which episodes are divided never feel uneven—pacing throughout the series might, sure—but these are very balanced entries that feel like one big story and never drag on. Admittedly, on their own the episodes sometimes struggle to have a real “story” rather than just continuing everything along. While similar beats come up in each episode, there’s simply not enough of the series for it to even begin to feel repetitive. If the murmurs are true and they plan to make more of this, it’ll be happily welcomed.
Likely the biggest perk of transforming Wet Hot into a television series comes in the form of the constant genre changing that’s facilitated through episodic storytelling. It’s perhaps not that surprising, considering it’s a concept that’s kept Childrens Hospital fresh for so long, with every episode crowning the series a new premise or genre according to how it sees fit. Once Wet Hot is allowed to not just be a camp film parody, but also a spoof of investigative journalism, computer hacking, espionage, legal courtroom dramas, the supernatural, and musicals, it really gets to let loose and “go to town” (if you know what I mean). There’s a particularly inspired piece with a certain “Mad Man” acting as an invincible assassin with his scenes feeling like they’re pulled from a Tarantino (think the first half of From Dusk ‘Til Dawn) or James Cameron (no, not Avatar, that big ‘80s action film he did) film.
Beneath all of this showmanship is a very sensitive beating heart too, mostly threaded along through young Kevin’s rivalry with his bully, Drew (who’s perfect, by the way). The brilliance of the young, “real” children that populate this camp amongst these clowns is that we actually get to see them experiencing the joys of camp (as well as the horrors, no one wants to be told they throw like a girl snake). Through these kids we see some beautiful, touching stories going on under all of the crassness. They’re the ones with the insight and all the answers. It’s a great idea to juxtapose them against the counselors as opposed to instead trying to inject profundity into these overgrown caricatures.
It’s scenes like these that really hammer home how much Wain and Showalter’s comedy has progressed. In comparison to the rest of their body of work, this certainly feels like more of a success than say Wanderlust, Role Models, and perhaps even The Ten (a film that I am very fond of, and cannot recommend enough if you haven’t had the pleasure), but just being shy of They Came Together’s strong parodical tone. When it comes to serialized content, First Day of Camp feels a lot like a very polished season of Childrens Hospital (which is far from a negative statement), and gets close to reaching the near-unrealistic feat of topping Stella, but falls a little short in the end. Landing somewhere between the two, while retaining the matured sentimentality that Wain and Showalter have developed through their careers, is nothing to go fly a kite at though.
The collective will of this team even pulled together some impossible situations, such as only having certain cast members for one or two days of production. Regardless of any compromises and rearrangements that were made, it doesn’t feel that way in the least, even though characters peter off into vignettes at times. This feels like an ensemble piece, unlike how Arrested Development’s fourth season schedule conflicts were felt in the casting setups for episodes. This again feels similar to the return of Arrested in terms of the onslaught of cameos that go down, with everyone wanting to have a piece of this.
Let’s just take a minute to talk about the cast, because this is as stacked as it gets. To begin with, everyone from the original has returned (even David Hyde Pierce, who is shoehorned in in a very unnecessary, but appreciated, appearance), along with welcome newcomers like Michael Cera, Jason Schwartzman, John Slattery, Lake Bell, and Josh Charles. It’s kind of bewildering to see a lot of these actors turn into straight up A-List celebrities in the 14 years that have passed since the movie’s release. You can go see Paul Rudd go and be a superhero right now in theaters if you’re so inclined.
Everyone is truly at the top of their games here, feeling like kids at camp, but Rudd (Andy) and Bell (Donna) especially kill it, delivering near flawless performances. Josh Charles is also fantastic as Blake, the Machiavellian rival to Rudd’s Andy, vying for the love of Diane. It’s so much fun to see Charles injecting Games of Thrones-esque societal and class issues into the environment as he forces Diane to choose between the cream (WASPS) and the crop (sun-burned Jews) and build a new future (kind of). I mean he literally refers to them as “peasants” at one point. Equally fun is watching Michael Ian Black’s McKinley and Bradley Cooper’s Ben coming to terms with their “creativity” and if they have the courage to act out their repressed “creativity” with each other. Between their dysfunction and that of basically every relationship within Camp Firewood, it almost feels like the spot is a quasi-purgatory that people are pulled to in order to sort out their issues in order to move on. The camp feels like a saving grace for many of these people, and if they didn’t have it to focus on, all they’d have left were their broken lives.
In spite of the melodrama that the series often dips to, I pretty much had a huge grin plastered on my face the entire time. At one point it’s exclaimed, “I was expecting this to be the best summer of our lives!” Well, while ’81 might have been a rocky one for those at Camp Firewood, the statement will certainly ring true for those of us in the summer of ’15 with Netflix, because it’s when we first got to take part in the joy of First Day of Camp. Bring on day number two!
Editor’s Note: This review is based on the first six episodes of Wet Hot American Summer’s eight-episode first season. All eight episodes of Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’s first season begin streaming on Netflix, July 31th.