As soon as Jefferson Starship’s “Jane” starts playing, you can’t help but imagine cracking open a beer, sitting around a campfire and embarking on a summer of shenanigans. At least that’s the imagery triggered in the minds of “Wet Hot American Summer” fans. The 2001 summer-camp comedy may have been an embarrassing box-office flop that suffered an even worse fate at the hands of critics, but David Wain and Michael Showalter’s film eventually found its place in the cult cannon, and now, a larger spot in the pop-culture lexicon.
Thanks to Netflix, and a cast whose names went unrecognized when the film first opened, “Wet Hot American Summer” is back and garnering more attention than anyone could have imagined 14 years ago. On July 27, 2001, when the film first hit theaters, Amy Poehler wouldn’t make her “Saturday Night Live” onscreen debut for another two months, future Oscar darling Bradley Cooper hadn’t yet appeared in a feature film and Paul Rudd was just Josh from “Clueless.” Now, it’s a miracle to get the three, much less the rest of the large cast, together again in the same room. But, with the exception of “a bit of magic” employed to remedy scheduling conflicts, Wain and Showalter managed to pull it off for “Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp,” the new prequel series that debuted on Netflix on Friday.
Originally a parody of summer-camp movies and teen comedies of the ‘70s and ‘80s, the film thrived on its inane humor and absurd jokes — like Chris Meloni’s Gene mumbling about humping the kitchen refrigerator, or the counselors randomly ditching camp to shoot up heroin. The comedy was certainly not for everyone’s taste, but it’s hard to turn down a chance to watch a group of comedy actors exercise free reign over a youth camp, and even harder to deny watching them do it again 14 years later. That’s precisely the selling point of “First Day of Camp,” which jumps back in time two months before the events of the movie to introduce us to Camp Firewood’s counselors at the start of the summer. For eight half-hour episodes — the first six of which were provided to press in advance — we watch Poehler, Cooper, Rudd, Janeane Garofalo, Marguerite Moreau, Elizabeth Banks, Molly Shannon and more play younger versions of themselves.
The prequel isn’t as sharp as the original movie, with some airless jokes and over-exhausted plotlines that leave you waiting to laugh or hoping the next backstory will take over. For example, Coop (Showalter) is still in desperate pursuit of a girl, this time played by Lake Bell, in a plot that quickly turns monotonous and should end after one episode. The camp’s overarching crisis — a conspiracy fueled by the U.S. government — is too silly and off-kilter, even for Showalter and Wain, to garner laughs. It’s rescued (quite literally) by Beth (Garofalo) and Greg (Jason Schwartzman), though, who prove to be a solid comedy duo. Together they enlist a lawyer (Michael Cera) to fight President Reagan’s (also played by Showalter) evil schemes and attempt to save the camp. In other words, appreciating the illogical nature of “Wet Hot” is essential for enjoying the series. Like the film, the show disregards continuity and basic sense of reason (like Kevin Sussman’s Steve hacking into the government with one click on an ’80s-era computer). In this fictional world, that’s okay.
Even though the prequel suffers from forgettable plotlines, it’s watching the actors embrace their Camp Firewood aliases once again, as well as the characters’ interactions, that makes “First Day of Camp” worth the four-hour visit. We get to see Ben (Cooper) and McKinley (Michael Ian Black) fall in love pre-tool-shed sex, Susie (Poehler) scream at more children for her musical production (all of which is cast, rehearsed and performed in one day), and Victor (Ken Marino) and Neil (Joe Lo Truglio) up to no good once again. All credit is due to Gene (Meloni), though, who provides the biggest laughs and has the most inventive origin story. We meet the camp chef as Jonas, before his Vietnam War PTSD transforms him into the sweater-fondling, hallucinating Gene. Jon Hamm also shows up for a showdown with Gene, guest starring as “President Reagan’s Hired Assassin,” The Falcon. (Anything is worth watching to witness Hamm play a character with that name.)
Beyond Hamm, the series also hosts a handful of perfectly cast cameos, from Kristen Wiig as a horny counselor at the preppy version of Camp Firewood next door, Josh Charles and Rich Sommer as douchey jocks, John Slattery as a dignified theater director, “Weird Al” Yankovic as a magician, Chris Pine as a reclusive rock ‘n’ roll genius, Jordan Peele as a newspaper editor and Michaela Watkins as a hip-thrusting choreographer. Do you need more reasons to watch?
But more than just cramming a bunch of funny celebrities together in one series, “First Day of Camp” also signals a refreshing perspective on the reboot era Hollywood is drowning in. If anything, Netflix reviving a cult classic like “Wet Hot” is proof that pop culture’s revival craze has more potential for giving under-appreciated films and series a second life.
Whether or not you were a fan of the original film, or if you never saw it in the first place, it’s hard to refuse the opportunity to watch Cooper and Black dance in a two-person zoot suit. Go for the cast reunion, stay for Rudd singing on the electric chair, then stick around even longer for those “Mad Men” cameos.
“Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp” is now streaming on Netflix.
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