I am an unabashed fan of Wet Hot American Summer. When Netflix announced David Wain and Michael Showalter were teaming up to create an eight-episode prequel miniseries about the first day of camp at Camp Firewood, I was simultaneously overjoyed and extremely concerned that it could not possibly live up to the hilarity of the original movie.
Basically, my biggest hope for the new series was that it wouldn’t be terrible, or that it at least wouldn’t tarnish the memory of the movie.
Fortunately, Wain and Showalter delivered at least that much. What we got was four new hours of television that delivered a lot of laughs, but also quite a few misses. But for die-hard Wet Hot fans like myself, we couldn’t have hoped for a whole lot better.
With the series coming nearly 15 years after the movie and the movie itself having attracted such a cult following, the big worry coming into the show was that it would rely far too much on rehashed gags and inside jokes from the movie. Fortunately, the series provides just enough callback jokes to satisfy long-time fans, but plenty of new material and characters to enjoy as well.
The real star of the show this time around is Andy (Paul Rudd). From his very first entrance leaping off his motorcycle, he steals every scene he’s in. While the movie focused mostly on Coop (Michael Showalter) and his crush on Katie (Marguerite Moreau), the show really turns Andy into the centerpiece, which is understandable, given Rudd’s rise to stardom and the release of the show being shortly after the release of Ant-Man.
As a result, though, our original protagonist, Coop, is taken out of the limelight, and his storyline suffers as a result. We’re given a backstory with Coop and his girl troubles with his “girlfriend” Donna (Lake Bell), but it feels forced and stretched out, and Coop isn’t given a whole lot to do or much room to grow. Sure, most of Coop’s character development comes in the actual movie, but without the movie’s main protagonist playing at least an interesting role in the series, it just doesn’t feel like Wet Hot.
The backstory of the love affair between Ben (Bradley Cooper) and McKinley (Michael Ian Black), however, was fantastic. Wain and Showalter devoted just enough screen time to fleshing out the way McKinley and Ben discovered their love for each other, and the “zoot suit” song and dance routine was the perfect hilarious vessel for bringing the two together.
Another pair of returnees from the movie, Neil (Joe Lo Truglio) and Victor (Ken Marino), also had stories for the show that did them justice. Their joking around with each other made for some great moments—Victor’s over-the-top boasting of his sexual conquests, coupled with his extreme awkwardness when actually talking to women, was really funny stuff. One of the best scenes of the series may have been Victor’s trip to the convenience store to purchase condoms, which spoofed the style of humor other shows and movies use in such situations.
I wish David Hyde Pierce would have been given more to do in the series, but in the few scenes he was in he was hysterical.
The storyline that got the most laughs out of me was definitely the government conspiracy, investigated by Beth (Janeane Garofalo) and Greg (Jason Schwartzman). The toxic sludge gag, which led to Mitch’s demise/transformation into the talking Can of Vegetables (H. Jon Benjamin), was worth it if only for the scene where Greg continues eating spoonfuls of the glowing green goo.
Out of all the new character additions, the three that stood out were the assassin Falcon (Jon Hamm), mysterious 80s rocker Eric (Chris Pine) and the young bully Drew (Thomas Barbusca). Watching Falcon and Gene (Christopher Meloni) tussle in the kitchen was one of the best moments of the series. Pine’s unexpectedly hilarious turn as Eric completely saved the “Lindsey is actually a rock magazine journalist” storyline that seemed doomed to be terrible the moment it was introduced.
I have to give props to Thomas Barbusca — he’s a young kid, but he has some fantastic comedic timing, and he had some of the best lines of the series, helped in big part by his smart line delivery. Pairing him across the cute, understated Kevin (David Bloom) was a perfect casting decision.
As far as other new characters go, Michael Cera didn’t particularly fit the part as the attorney Jim Stansel (one of the callback gags that didn’t really hit for me), but the overdramatized courtroom scene and press conference afterward were one of the best examples of Wain and Showalter’s ability to satirize clichés in movies and television.
Speaking of gags that didn’t hit, Gail (Molly Shannon) is by far the weak point of the weak point of the show, just as she was in the movies. Not only does her storyline involving constant, fast failed relationships fall flat, but it drags down the best character from the movies, Gene, with her. Gene’s military ‘cover” as Jonas Jurgensen lasts far too long, and once he’s made the full transition into his actual identity, there isn’t nearly enough screen time left to let him provide the same type of wacky moments that made him so memorable in the movie.
The relationship between Suzie (Amy Poehler) and new arrival Claude (Mad Men’s John Slattery) also failed to produce any really memorable moments and felt mostly like filler.
Overall, the show gave us just enough laughs to make it worthwhile. But with the series being almost three times as long as the original movie, Wain and Showalter were always going to have to overcome the challenge of having too much time to work with. The original Wet Hot movie was great because there was no wasted time, and the jokes came in at a mile a minute. The slower pace doesn’t do Wain’s style of comedy many favors, and it just feels like the duo may have bit off more than they could chew by bringing such a huge cast together for one short series.
Big-time fans of the original movie will enjoy the series, but they won’t watch it over and over again like they do with the movie, and they won’t find as many quotes that just beg to be parroted. Without those factors, First Day of Camp delivers just enough to satisfy fans but without the same charm as its predecessor.
Rating: 68/100 ”Above Average”
Tim Backes is an editor and founder of NovaCritic.com.