Netflix has been producing series at a frantic pace, many of them surprisingly good. Its sweet spot is comedy. Lilyhammer, Arrested Development (season 4), Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, BoJack Horseman, Orange is the New Black are all refreshingly off-centered, and feature high production values. Now comes Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp.
I’m a fan of Michael Showalter and David Wain’s Wet Hot American Summer (2001), although my family considers my love insane. That movie featured a who’s-who of American comedy talent, most on the cusp of their big moments. They played summer camp counselors in 1981, supposedly in their teens but with no particular effort made to look like teenagers. It was a loose, affectionate spoof of spoofs, landing maybe half its jokes and blissfully unconcerned with structure, pacing, logic and taste.
Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp reunites the entire cast of the original (an astonishing logistical feat) and ups the ante with a host of A-list guests, all willing to play on Showalter and Wain’s sweet slacker wavelength. Whereas the movie was set on the final day of camp, the new series takes place on the first day, 8 weeks before the events of the movie. If no effort was made fourteen years ago to look like teens, the series now revels in the absurdity – imagine Amy Poehler explaining to John Slattery that she can’t leave camp and go to New York with him because she’s only 16, “and that would be weird.”
At 4 hours, the series is absurdly long to cover the events of a single day, which becomes another running joke. The opening day musical (?!) is a full production of a (made-up) Broadway hit, and there’s time to hire and fire a cast, hold second auditions and re-stage the entire show. The actual show is presented in episode 7, and I’ve watched it 3 times – a perfect combustion of over-the-top contrivance and performance, brilliantly edited and scored. You’d expect that to be the climax of any season, but another plotline involves a lawsuit against the Federal Government, initiated and tried in a single day and culminating with an armed invasion of the camp led by President Reagan. (Go with it.)
I’ve given away just two morsels to entice you; there are dozens of surprises I’ll leave for your delight. One recommendation – watch the movie first, also on Netflix. Although the series is billed as a prequel, its comedy builds on everything that happened in the movie.