WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER: FIRST DAY OF CAMP Review

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Above and beyond anything else, WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER: FIRST DAY OF CAMP is a fundamentally weird television mini-series, with almost nothing contained within being stranger (OK, that’s not true) than the very concept and conceit of the show itself. In 2001, David Wain and Michael Showalter brought the cinematic incarnation of WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER into the world, with absolutely no fanfare whatsoever ($295,206 worth of fanfare, to be exact). With a certified rotten score and virtually no money having been made from the first sordid affair, it is absolutely inconceivable that Netflix would have stuck their name on an eight-episode prequel to the parent text. And yet, this is a world where Donald Trump and Deez Nuts are both official Republican candidates, so who’s to begrudge a snack-size prequel that nobody asked for?

What’s impossible to shake throughout the runtime of the show is the sense of manufactured nostalgia. Although the film is officially considered a “cult classic,” it’s definitely a unique move (“groundbreaking” seems a touch extreme) for Netflix to place so much upon the reminiscing of a niche audience. And yet, as time proves again and again, there’s nothing that white people like more than a heavy sense of nostalgia, and now every pop culture blog and its mother is chiming in, asserting the exquisite degree to which the show continues to carry the quirky torch of its predecessor. Are we to believe that virtually every major pop culture tastemaker was amongst those who contributed to the original $295,206 run? Or are we practically predisposed to think fondly of WHAS: FDOC because of its inherently nostalgic nature, especially when coupled with seeing the adult incarnations of the original, currently famous cast, all of whom were almost entirely unknown 14 years previously?

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Amy Poehler and Bradley Cooper are among the many to reprise their roles

You see, WHAS: FDOC doesn’t play entirely fair. It’s an admittedly idiosyncratic tactic to feature the same cast as the film 14 years later, but so much of the perceived humor is based upon seeing entirely incongruous middle-aged individuals pretend to be teenagers that it can’t help but be written off as a gimmick.

Much of the perceived humor is based upon seeing entirely incongruous middle-aged individuals pretend to be teenagers.

Is it truly comedy if the joke in question is entirely dependent of an audience member recognizing a star, processing their recent work, reconsidering their appearance in the show in the context of their recent work, and then laughing? Are we supposed to chuckle because Bradley Cooper’s performance in the camp musical is truly that hilarious, or are we supposed to chuckle because Bradley Cooper’s coming hot off of the heels of AMERICAN SNIPER? There’s really no jokes to be found, and those that are present are predictable and more often than not, merely mildly amusing (the one that immediately comes to mind is Paul Rudd’s character being told that his mother still dresses herself as part of a “your mom” joke, only to inform us that his mother is in fact physically disabled and hasn’t been able to dress herself for years). The highlight of the show from a straightforward comedy perspective comes in the third episode, wherein camp chef Jonas (Christopher Meloni) must mentally relive his life starting from birth in order to remember a secret code he was given as a sleeper cell military agent (things get complex).

wet hot american summer christopher meloni

Christopher Meloni is a highlight of the show as Camp Chef Jonas

The scene in episode seven where Victor Pulak (Ken Marino) attempts to buy condoms is also a classic comedy highlight of turmoil by way of misunderstanding. Other than that, apart from some very mild visual humor based around editing, we’re only left to derive a sense of joy from the intensely awkward atmosphere coupled with the anticipation of the next celebrity to make a cameo. In fact, let’s look at the plot as summed up by Cooper (Michael Showalter) in the final episode, but with the character names replaced by the actor names (as that’s where so much of the attempted humor is clearly derived from).

“Michael Showalter (as Cooper) had to break up with Lake Bell after David Wain tried to initiate a threesome…

wet hot american summer coop donna yaron

…and then the rival camp showed up because Paul Rudd stole Marguerite Moreau away from Josh Charles, and they tried to destroy the camp…

wet hot american summer paul rudd marguerite

…and then, well, right after that, Michael Showalter (as Ronald Reagan) and the U.S. military also tried to destroy the camp, but that was after they also shot Chris Pine, that hermit that lived at camp and turned out to be a musical legend…

wet hot american summer chris pine

…and then that new counselor, Elizabeth Banks? Well, she saved everyone because she was secretly a rock magazine journalist…

wet hot american summer elizabeth banks

…and then Molly Shannon blew off Christopher Meloni at their wedding, and he fought in Vietnam…

wet hot american summer molly shannon

…and Christopher Meloni also got beaten up by an assassin named Jon Hamm, who tried to kill Janeane Garofalo and did kill Jason Schwartzmann and this guy Michael Cera, but then he turned out to be good the whole time, which I acknowledge doesn’t really make any sense…

wet hot american summer jon hamm whas

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wet hot american summer michael cera

…and he was only here to protect H. Jon Benjamin, who was turned into a can of vegetables…

wet hot american summer can of vegetables

…and then also Bradley Cooper and Michael Ian Black are dating…

wet hot american summer michael ian black

…Amy Poehler hooked up with John Slattery…

wet hot american summer john slattery

…Joe Lo Truglio got laid, Ken Marino didn’t get laid…

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…and Marisa Ryan had her period”.

wet hot american summer marisa ryan

Your ability to enjoy the show rests entirely on your opinion of that preceding paragraph.

Now, I’ll debark from my train of criticism for a moment to point out that the show is ultimately successful in cultivating its own tangible atmosphere. By blatantly challenging us to ever get sucked into the world of story by means of its adult stars alone, a bizarre, liminal world of story is created in its own right.

By blatantly challenging us to ever get sucked into the world of story by means of its adult stars alone, a bizarre, liminal world of story is created in its own right.

We’re told from the get-go to expect the unexpected, and the show undeniably succeeds in delivering just that. H. Jon Benjamin (Bob, of BOB’S BURGERS fame) plays a camp director whose spirit gets transfused into a can of vegetables after he falls into a pit of toxic sludge placed on the campsite by government operatives. Jon Hamm plays a government assassin who ends up killing reluctant lawyer Johnny Piss Pot (played by Michael Cera) and Jason Schwartzmann. “Weird” Al Yankovic shows up as a hypnotist acting as camp entertainment, only to be revealed as Jon Hamm in a “Weird” Al Yankovic suit.

wet hot american summer jon hamm weird al

There’s a certain charm to the proceedings due to the initial drive to remain implicitly self-referential, but the show loses steam towards the end as things become saturated with winking melodrama that doesn’t quite manage to land (I found the joke involving Lindsay (Elizabeth Banks)’s “betrayal” revolving around her revealing herself as a rock journalist instead of a camper rather thin).

Furthermore to the show’s favor are the exemplary performances scattered throughout. Despite my aforementioned belief that the joke revolves entirely around the fact that he’s Bradley Cooper, Bradley Cooper is undeniably delightful in his role as a closeted “theater kid,” especially when his “Southern Gentleman” accent comes out to play. John Slattery is another arguable highlight as the intense, hyperbolic star theater director Claude Dumet, and although Amy Poehler is disappointingly under-utilized as the camper he seduces, the seduction itself is worth a gander. However, the nearly indisputable star of the show is Paul Rudd, whose Andy character is the only one that consistently inspires laughter (and there is a certain acting caliber required to sell lines such as “I’m gonna fart my way right into that snatch”).

wet hot american summer paul rudd gif

In an age where “alternative comedy” is the norm, and anti-comedy is rapidly gaining in stature and influence, many comedies find themselves in the limbo of simply being “not dramas.” WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER: FIRST DAY OF CAMP is one of these examples. Rarely inspiring genuine laughs, but consistently inspiring a raised eyebrow, WHAS: FDOC has to be seen to be believed, but doesn’t make a resounding case that there’s anything to be believed in.

Verdict: Do Not Recommend

WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER: FIRST DAY OF CAMP is available in its entirety on Netflix

Crossfader is the brainchild of Thomas Seraydarian, and he acts as Editor-in-Chief.

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