Now that the campers have arrived and we’ve set their places at lunch, “Activities” gets right into the meat of what Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp is all about: problematic relationships, rock prodigies hiding from the public eye and vast government conspiracies that go all the way to the president. You know, just your normal first day of summer camp.
While Wet Hot American Summer had Beth (Janeane Garofalo) working with Henry (David Hyde Pierce) and the indoor kids to stop a renegade piece of SKYLAB from crushing the camp, First Day of Camp features the evil Xenstar, who Mitch (H. Jon Benjamin) has allowed to dump toxic waste on the camp in order to keep the camp afloat. The best part about these 80s conspiracy-type stories is that the story is always furthered by things that make absolutely no sense, and I’d say First Day of Camp does this even better than the film.
For example, with his last few breaths, Mitch mentions that Beth and Greg (Jason Schwartzman) need to get a code to hack Xenstar’s mainframe computer and see how far up this situation goes. The different steps they take to reach their goal are even more ridiculous than in the film. Steve (Kevin Sussman) prints up a series of nonsense numbers, which apparently Greg can read as Xenstar leading straight to Ronald Reagan. That’s right, the events of Camp Firewood lead all the way up to the president! Wet Hot American Summer has always been hilarious in the insane situations this camp can get in and as we will see throughout this season, First Day of Camp excels in making the camp’s importance ridiculously huge.
This conspiracy ties in directly with Jonas/Gene (Christopher Meloni), who is finally discovered to have been in the ‘Nam, as explained by Mitch, who is now a can of vegetables due to Xenstar’s slime. Once again, typical summer camp material. Jonas’ exploration of his past before getting to the codes Beth and Greg need is fantastic, as we’re finally seeing Jonas turning into the man we know as Gene, which also leads to fear from Gail (Molly Shannon), who overhears about his past while carrying a huge basket of crayons. What did you do with those crayons Gail?? Why do you only have one left at the end of camp??
As Beth and Greg follow this to the top, they are discovered hacking the mainframe by Ron von Kleinenstein (Judah Friedlander), who reports his findings to President Reagan (Michael Showalter, in awful makeup). The only way to stop the camp is to activate special operative the Falcon (a brilliant Jon Hamm).
What I continually find fascinating about this series is how with just a handful of stories, it’s able to tie all of these insane characters together and place them in a position that makes sense by the time we get to the movie. In only three episodes, the Xenstar storyline ties in why there’s a can of talking vegetables, who Gene/Jonas is, starts to explain Gail’s heartbreak, introduces Ron von Kleinenstein into the mix and does this with perfection. The film threw a lot of crazy shit into its story without any need to explain what the hell is happening, and the brilliance of First Day of Camp is how elegantly it can explain everything simply and succinctly.
Camp is also nothing without the relationships and “Activities” continues the story of two great love triangles. The most important of these is between Coop (Showalter), Donna (Lake Bell) and Yaron (David Wain), where Coop keeps trying his hardest, only to be continually given hope, just to have it shot down. Here, Donna gives Coop what seems like a sweet gift of a shofar, a religious horn, only to discover that Donna has also apparently given everyone in camp one, even giving Yaron the same speech about love that she gave Coop. Meanwhile Andy (Paul Rudd) is still trying to win over Katie (Marguerite Moreau) from her boyfriend Blake (John Charles). Blake gives Katie an ultimatum that if she doesn’t come with him to Camp Tigerclaw’s formal, they’re toast. As in burnt bread.
What I find so interesting about both of these triangles is that we know for the most part what is going to happen. Coop is going to end up alone, Donna and Yaron won’t even be there by the end of the summer, and despite a fling between Katie and Coop, Andy is destined to end up with Katie, for better or for worse. Mostly worse. Yet the show still makes its audience hope that Coop will succeed in love or, even more surprising, that the douchey Andy will actually get Katie, while in the film we hope for the exact opposite. It’s almost like a romantic comedy where we know the conclusion already, yet we hope for alternate results and root for other characters, regardless.
Having watched this season already a few times, I must say I’m loving Chris Pine’s Eric character more and more every time. After Lindsay (Elizabeth Banks) forces JJ (Zac Orth) to tell her about the mysterious cabin that houses Eric, we discover that Eric was a guitar genius who went to Firewood, was picked up by Columbia Records, cracked under his musical brilliance, only to return to Firewood and lock himself in a cabin for no one to discover. Pine’s breezy performance of Eric is so specific and strange, but it only gets better as the season progresses. It’s also hilarious how thinly-veiled Lindsay keeps the truth that she’s clearly a journalist from Manhattan…Manhattanville.
“Activities” is the final step of setting up First Day of Camp’s many plots and characters, old and new. But the series does it in such a perfectly-crafted way that ties in so much information, stories and callbacks without ever feeling bloated or like it’s stuffing in more plot than it can handle. Believe it or not, we’re just getting started on taking it higher and higher.
Ross Bonaime is a D.C.-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can’t tell him you don’t want to hack yourself off a slice of this long, greasy dick. You can follow him on Twitter.