Wet Hot American Summer: How Netflix Became Completely and Gloriously Unpredictable

TV Features Wet Hot American Summer
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Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, with so many of its jokes and plot-points catered to whatever fans there are of a film that tanked back in 2001, isn’t built for beginners. Then again, First Day of Camp doesn’t really pander to anyone: The brainchild of David Wain and Michael Showalter, the show—like the Wet Hot American Summer movie—takes place over a single day at Camp Firewood, a summer camp full of randy teen counselors, and given to extreme lapses in logic. As if wrestling with raging hormones wasn’t enough, the campers also have to deal with a military invasion led by Ronald Reagan, and Camp director H. Jon Benjamin turning into a can of vegetables after he falls into a puddle of radioactive waste.

At times, First Day of Camp is an obviously and uproariously absurd comedy; at other times, it’s a spoof played with the straightness of that Will Ferrell Lifetime movie no one got. This is a show with influences all over the map, incorporating slapstick, surreal bits, smart wordplay, and fart jokes. And just when you think you’ve got the show pegged, it transmogrifies into something else—a conspiracy thriller pastiche, a ridiculous legal drama, a bad musical. First Day of Camp is a light, R-rated comedy that requires your full attention, and even then, you might not always gather what it’s getting at. In short, it’s one of the most unlikely high-profile comedies of recent times.

It’s also one of the starriest, with Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks, Bradley Cooper, Amy Poehler, and Janeane Garofalo returning from the movie, and sharing the screen with newcomers Jason Schwartzman, Jon Hamm, Chris Pine, Michael Cera, and Kristen Wiig. And Netflix embarked upon the herculean task of bringing them all together for a spin-off of a commercial failure, not to mention a—if we’re being honest here—fairly average, scattergun film. (Cult item or no, Wet Hot American Summer doesn’t rank alongside the likes of Superbad and Adventureland as a great modern coming-of-age comedy, and its dismal Rotten Tomatoes score is testament to that.)

Neither are its creators exactly bankable household names, more like the perennial bridesmaids of comedy, seemingly always on the cusp of breaking out and into bigger things. In a way, that the show was commissioned at all feels like part of the joke, along with the decision to bring back the original cast members—too old the first time around, and now 14 years older—as virginal 16 and 17-year-olds. But, for whatever reason, Netflix did commission this thing, and subsequently load it with expensive star talent, even though few seemed to be crying out for a Wet Hot spin-off in the first place. The result is a quite-genius oddity that—on this gigantic platform—has arguably been allowed to become more offbeat and weird than even its cinematic progenitor was.

The show itself seems to recognize, in its own gleeful disregard for what conventional audiences might consider to be ‘good’ comedy, that it could only have been made by Netflix. Consider how distinctive this and two other recent Netflix releases— Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and BoJack Horseman—feel, and ask yourself whether their creators would have had such free reign elsewhere. A month after BoJack went deeper and darker, transforming into an existential dramedy with its second season, along comes Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, to confirm Netflix’s devil-may-care attitude towards mainstream appeal and the TV comedy status quo.

There’s promise in Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp for all kinds of reasons. The show itself builds in quality as it goes along, and truly finds its madcap footing in the second half, which bodes well for potential follow-up seasons. First Day of Camp’s very existence also has much to say about what we can expect from Netflix comedy in the future: the very best topline talent; innovative concepts found nowhere else; big gambles taken on singular creatives. More than anything, though, First Day of Camp has made the future of Netflix comedy wholly, joyously unpredictable.

Perhaps that Netflix now has the bafflingly popular Adam Sandler on its books means the streaming giant feels it can afford to take risks elsewhere, and explore the possibilities of more unconventional projects, like an upcoming semi-autobiographical sitcom from Aziz Ansari, a sketch comedy from the team behind the cult Mr. Show, and features from mumblecore kings Jay and Mark Duplass. For now, behold Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, and witness Netflix throwing down the gauntlet, daring fellow purveyors of comedy to make a move so bold.