Here’s a spoiler-free review of the first six episodes of Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp. We’ll be running reviews of individual episodes once the show premieres on Netflix on 7/31.
The fear of every Wet Hot American Summer fan is that the new Netflix series will be so bad that it hurts their memories of the original. That’s silly, but some people are that way, especially on the internet, where it’s easy to reinforce all of our most negative and hateful opinions. See the more extreme reactions to the fourth season of Arrested Development, which turned into something special and great by the end but somehow developed a reputation for being awful in certain precincts of the internet.
Fear not, Wet Hot fans: First Day of Camp is fantastic. Or at least the six episodes provided in advance to the press are, and the last two (it’s an eight-episode run) would have to be Brickleberry bad to somehow sink the whole season.
It’s as delightful and absurd as the original, capturing that same heightened tone pitched somewhere between genre parody and surrealism found in many of David Wain and Michael Showalter’s projects. It’s not just a satire of ‘80s summer camp movies, or the Jewish summer camp experience, but of the entire idea of making a movie. It’s a satire of adolescence, of life, of just existing on this planet and using a computer to watch a TV show based on a movie that made no money 15 years ago.
If you’ve missed the deluge of internet words about Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, here’s what you need to know: it’s a miniseries starring the entire original cast and set earlier in the same year as the film. I haven’t crosschecked the IMDB listings or anything, but as far as I can tell every adult actor from the movie has popped up in the show so far, including big deal Hollywood types like Bradley Cooper and Elizabeth Banks. And that already fantastic cast is bolstered by guest turns from a slew of new all-stars, including Kristen Wiig, Jason Schwartzman, Josh Charles, Jon Hamm, John Slattery, and even more Mad Men actors. (Okay, exactly one more Mad Men actor.)
With such a massive cast you might think it’s hard to find suitable screen time for everybody. It’s not that surprising that Showalter and Janeane Garofalo fade into the background a bit as Cooper, Banks and Amy Poehler become more prominent, but no character completely disappears, and the show never leans too heavily towards one specific storyline. The movie was an ensemble piece that had two major romantic spines, whereas the show is slightly more egalitarian in sharing the spotlight. And I’d be able to say that Banks in particular is more prominent if she even had only a handful of lines in the show, considering how minor she was in the movie; here she has an entire subplot, including a brilliant secret origin that might include the single best scene of the series.
Most characters have one storyline that’s broken up across multiple episodes. So even though it’s structured like a show, it doesn’t really feel like a sitcom. It reminds me of Eastbound & Down, which always felt like a long movie split up into small bits. And with every episode hitting Netflix at the same time, it’ll be easy to watch them all in a row, like a movie that just happens to run credits every half hour.
Perhaps the best thing I can say about First Day of Camp, other than that it’s consistently hilarious, is that it hardly ever repeats the movie. Sure, it features the same actors and characters, so it revives some of the character traits and relationships developed in the movie, delivered with the same tone by the same cast. But the first six episodes never regurgitate actual jokes or bits. It finds entirely new territory to explore with the same absurd touch of the original, and when it does by necessity revisit familiar turf it approaches it from new angles. It’s an almost seamless continuation of a beloved classic, but also weird and hilarious enough on its own to work for somebody who’s never seen the movie. Even the toughest internet critic will struggle to find something to complain about.
Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp will be available on Netflix on 7/31.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. Find him on Twitter @grmartin.