Thursday, October 1, 2015

Return to Camp Firewood – Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp

Jason Schwartzman and Janeane Garofalo in Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, on Netflix.

It’s been fourteen years since David Wain and Michael Showalter’s film Wet Hot American Summer achieved thoroughly “meh” ticket sales at the box office and forever split the world’s population into two rival camps (and I’m not sorry for the pun): people that loved Wet Hot American Summer and people who just didn’t. This July, Netflix gave us the opportunity to go back to camp and start the debate anew with the eight-episode exclusive series, Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp. The setting, both temporally and geographically, is the same. The unflattering costumes are the same. Even the adult cast members, some of which have risen to meteoric stardom in the years since the original feature film, are the same and it’s worth noting that every single one of them returned to reprise their roles. If that isn’t a testament to the intensely positive filming experience they had in 2001 (no lie: it’s detailed in the completely charming documentary Hurricane of Fun: The Making of Wet Hot American Summer), I don’t know what is.

As the title suggests, First Day of Camp is the prequel to the 2001 film. The original Wet Hot American Summer takes place on the last day at fictional Camp Firewood during the summer of ’81; the entirety of the Netflix series takes place on the first. Both the film and the series focus on a team of camp counselors enjoying one of the last carefree summers of their teenage years. The actors, who were already too old to play teens in 2001, have aged but the timeless “coming of age” themes of sex, love, and friendship that fuel the Wet Hot American Summer franchise live on.

The Netflix series is comprised of several loosely-connected plot threads that take place in and around Camp Firewood, ranging in both absurdity and effectiveness. Paul Rudd returns as bad boy romantic lead Andy, harnessing his inner teen boy sass and some excellent physical comedy to woo Katie (Marguerite Moreau) away from her insufferable upper class beau (Josh Charles) in the show’s central love story. Amy Poehler and Bradley Cooper also sparkle again as theatre-kid couple Susie and Ben, “directors/producers” of the camp’s original musical, Electro-City. Naturally, some storylines were more engaging than others. In particular, the botched romance between campers Kevin and Amy (played by actual young teens, David Bloom and Hailey Sole, respectively) is a little dry and out of place compared to the series’ bolder plot lines. Surprisingly, the love triangle involving series creator Michael Showalter’s everyman character, Coop, falls a little flat too, although it gave us the gift of director David Wain’s performance as free-loving Israeli exchange student, Yaron. Wain’s character is burlesque sensuality in a pukka shell necklace, the token “deep guy” at the party that we all love to hate. Striking a chord somewhere between Dos Equis’ "Most Interesting Man in the World" and Fabio on the cover of a romance novel, Yaron is the perfect summer camp villain.

Lake Bell and Michael Showalter in Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp.

To complement the star-studded cast, First Day of Camp also features a revolving door of cameos, each seemingly more ridiculous than the last. H. Jon Benjamin (Archer, Bob’s Burgers) reprises his role as the voice of Gene’s (Chris Meloni) talking can of vegetables, but only after appearing in person for an episode to flesh out his unexpected back story. Similarly, David Hyde Pierce returns briefly to paint a more detailed portrait of Associate Physics Professor Henry Newman and shed light on how an academic ends up renting a cottage next to a summer camp and teaching Camp Firewood’s “indoor kids” about outer space. Plenty of new characters surprise and delight as well. Jon Hamm continues to be funnier than Mad Men ever gave him credit for as “The Falcon,” a hired hitman whose story is riddled with enormous plot holes that he assures everyone he could totally explain, but he “has a thing to get to,” so he doesn’t.

While the series is passably entertaining for newcomers, First Day of Camp truly shines brightest in its role as a prequel and will resonate most strongly with fans of the original film. The best comedy is in the narrative journey from First Day of Camp’s metaphorical point A to Wet Hot American Summer’s point B, and Wain and Showalter go above and beyond to create the most inconvenient, illogical, outlandish route to get there. Almost every element of their 2001 cult hit, from Gail’s (Molly Shannon) divorce, to why Greg (Jason Schwartzman) isn’t in the movie, is expanded upon during First Day of Camp’s four-hour running time. Like the film, the series is rife with continuity errors, plot holes, and dumb humour but the energy behind its production, the fact that it is so clearly loved by its cast and crew, is undeniably infectious. As “The Falcon” illustrates in the final episode, you can’t think too much about what makes sense and what doesn’t. Camp is a feeling, after all, and the sense of camaraderie and playfulness that Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp exudes is what holds it together, bringing us all, audience and camper alike, home again to Camp Firewood for one more endless summer.

- Danny McMurray has a B.A. in English Language and Literature with a minor in Anthropology from the University of Western Ontario. She is particularly enthusiastic about science fiction, horror movies, feminism, video games, books, opera, and good espresso – all of which she can find in spades in her home base of Toronto, Ontario.

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