Netflix Delights With ‘Wet Hot American Summer’ Prequel (TV Review)

[rating=8.00]

I’ve got a bit of a bizarre relationship with the original Wet Hot American Summer; it’s a movie that had to grow on me. Usually, that’s not an easy feat for a movie to accomplish. Movies I hate rarely get the opportunity to redeem themselves and I positively loathed it the first time I saw it, finding it unfunny, droll, and a bit of a mess. I was angry at my friend for making me watch it, and angrier, still, at his bad taste. So why would I give it another chance? That wasn’t really my choice. It’s ubiquity in dorm rooms and college apartments in the early 00’s made it nigh impossible to escape from; no matter where I turned or went, it was always on. With every new couch I slunk into after a night (or day, as the case may be) of relentless partying, its charms began to take hold, wearing me down until, eventually, I recognized it for the work of unmitigated comedic genius it is.

The humor of Wet Hot American Summer was so far ahead of its time that neither audiences nor critics knew what to make of it at first. This was in the days before Adult Swim’s absurdist cartoons really took hold of the hearts and minds America’s collegiate youth, creating a template for this brand of off-beat humor that we take for granted today. In America, we had no baseline for comparison, no way to truly get what was going on or why it was funny. Only a tiny minority understood it in its initial release, and those  outliers proceeded to do their best to make the rest of us finally get it.

These days the original movie—a sort of reunion of the cast of MTV’s seminal Gen X sketch comedy troupe, The State—is looked upon by many as an influential monument of modern American comedy that remains unparalleled. The humor is so advanced that it’s still hard for new audiences to fully get it in a single viewing, even if they’ve got a foundation of absurdism. To this day, every time I watch it I see new jokes and laugh at new things and gain a deeper appreciation for everything going on in the film.

Which is why I feel bad writing a review of its spinoff prequel series after just one viewing. Questions plague me as I write my critique. What have I missed? What will I find next time I watch it? What jokes are lying dormant, waiting to be discovered in subsequent viewings? Does a single viewing actually qualify me to review it?

Frankly, I don’t know—I can’t know, really. But what I do know is that Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp is every bit as bizarre and dry as its predecessor and if your sensibilities are attuned to the absurd, it’s also every bit as hilarious.

As suggested by the title, this companion piece to the film (and, really, companion piece is the best descriptor available) takes us all the way back to day one of the summer camp season that we saw end in the movie. All of the characters you fell in love with make their return, played by all of the same actors who played them originally (well, except for the kids…that’d just be weird). If it feels bizarre to you that actors who are 15 years older than they were when they first played these characters are back now to play younger versions of the same characters don’t worry. That’s sort of the joke—an extreme lambasting of older actors playing younger characters. The absurdity of this practice is made all the more apparent by virtue of the fact that the actors involved are all pushing fifty, as opposed to being in their mid-20’s, and the entire premise is played with the straightest of faces.

In addition to all the familiar faces, we’re introduced to a variety of new characters whose presence in the series and absence in the movie also serve as punchlines to jokes that were never made. Most notably is the addition of Jason Schwartzman, whose mastery of dryness is served perfectly by the material. There are also a slew of cameos, none of which I’ll ruin here, but all of which I adored.

Like the original movie, it helps to have a knowledge of the various tropes that punctuate the 80’s sex comedy. You’ll find most—if not all—of them here. There’s the rival rich camp who look down upon the “peasants” who populate Camp Firewood, the raunchy coming of age story, environmental espionage, the little man vs. the big bad government, and so much more. It’s almost dizzying trying to keep up with all the bits creators David Wain and Michael Showalter have strung together, and while at times it may not seem to make any sense, that’s only because it’s not particularly supposed to. This is anti-comedy taken to the logical conclusions; to say it’s funny because it’s not funny would be cliche—there’s so much more going on than that—but it wouldn’t be misguided. Much of the time, this is precisely why Wet Hot American Summer (both the movie and the series) is so funny. Wain and Showalter have perfected the art of awkward humor, finding comedy gold where rightfully none should exist. This is a skill they have finely tuned over the years, from The State, to Stella, and into this.

Be warned though: I meant what I said earlier about First Day of Camp being a companion piece. Newcomers to and detractors of the original movie will find little to love or understand about this eight episode series. Many of the jokes rely on previous knowledge and appreciation of the film and are often implied rather than outright made. “How does this character get from what we see here to what we see in the movie in just a few short weeks?” That question is frequently the point of the joke, and it’s a joke you either get and find hysterical or that falls heavily onto deaf ears.

While at times I wavered, wondering why Wain and Showalter and everyone involved elected to produce a series rather than a new movie, ultimately I was rewarded for my faith. By the end of the eighth episode, a series made more sense to me than a movie ever would have. The writers weaved their mountain of tropes and sideplots into something masterful, something special. The production of this series is arguably one of the ballsiest moves of Netflix’s business plan and is sure to divide audiences into firm camps of pro and anti. That’s to be expected, naturally. Like its predecessor, Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp doesn’t care too much whether or not you get the joke. It doesn’t exist to please everybody and never attempts to. It exists solely to please itself, a true exercise in masturbation which, in this case, I say with the highest possible regard.

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