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Review: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’ — A Fun But Overcooked Attempt to Recreate the Past

Review: 'Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp' — A Fun But Overcooked Attempt to Recreate the Past

[Editor’s Note: This review is actually two reviews for the price of one (not that you’re paying). The top half is spoiler-free and only for Episodes 1-6, while the bottom covers the final two episodes and includes spoilers for the full season. In other words, read the top if you haven’t seen “Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp,” and the bottom if you have. Enjoy!]

Spoiler-Free Review

Ben Travers, TV Critic:
“I’ll fart my way into that snatch. Just you watch.”

So declares Andy, the too-cool-for-school camp counselor ideally embodied by Paul Rudd in both “Wet Hot American Summer” and its new prequel TV series on Netflix, “First Day of Camp.” In reprising the role favorited by many fans, Rudd exemplifies everything that should work in favor of the TV show: A fierce (re)commitment to the role, a big boost in fame since the film first opened and, of course, a slightly older physique (though Rudd is impossibly ageless).

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Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp” doubles down on its predecessor’s visual gag that these supposed 16-year-old counselors were played by actors closer to twice that age when the film was shot. Now they look even older, and, to the show’s credit, there is some genuine humor found in watching grown-ass celebrities mock their teenage selves with fart jokes. But, through six of the eight total episodes, that joke isn’t the only one recycled by original writers David Wain and Michael Showalter. Their new series leans far too heavily on explaining, altering and recreating old jokes rather than providing new laughs based on the same creative spirit that made the film a cult classic.

Liz Shannon Miller, TV Editor:
What if you’re not intimately familiar with the original film, though? Say, perhaps, you’ve only seen it once (and just recently) because you never got around to it beyond watching the occasional clip on YouTube? That’s a terrible thing to confess in this day and age, considering “Wet Hot” occupies such an iconic place in our comedy ecosystem. But even without having seen the original film, for years I’ve been intimately familiar with some of its best jokes (or at the very least, most of the things that Paul Rudd says and does). But only knowing the film in terms of broad strokes meant I came to “First Day of Camp” relatively aware of the material being mined, but not so frustrated by the fact that it was drawing so much from the movie.

What would be the percentage of jokes, you’d estimate, that are recycled from the original?

BT: If there are roughly 10 key returning cast members shown in the first episode, five of them are given storylines based on an understanding — basic or intimate — of the original film, four of them are saddled with jokes recycled from the film and at least five characters overall are predominantly given well-worn material to work with throughout the season. That may not sound like too uneven a trade, and to reiterate, I’m not against callbacks. Homage must be paid to such a cherished film, but the repeated reliance on old material feels like a crutch in “First Day of Camp.” I’ll avoid spoilers — though I’m not sure these would spoil anything, considering they’re based on preexisting gags — but I would’ve liked to see more emphasis placed on inventive backstories for these characters rather than easy jokes based on where we know they’ll end up.

Perhaps even more troubling, though, are the new additions to an already bursting cast. Many just can’t find their place in the crowded half-hour episodes, and at least one member of TV royalty is all but pushed aside in favor of a less famous and less funny character. I love John Slattery as much as the next guy — maybe more so given my undying love for “Mad Men” — but he should not be getting more lines than Amy Poehler, especially when it’s Susie, the totalitarian stage director, we’re excited to see. I was thankful the series didn’t suffer from the same problems as “Arrested Development” Season 4 (in which Slattery also appeared), but overinflating the ensemble proved to be just as irksome as keeping characters separated.

LM: See, I disagree. “Arrested Development” is a really important comparison point for me because the “massive cast largely split up across separate storylines” angle did bother me. I mean, it seemed pretty inevitable due to the fact that some of these people are now full-on movie stars with pretty busy schedules… (In case you were wondering, the top three box office earners in the cast, lifetime, according to Box Office Mojo: 3) Paul Rudd: $1.2 billion, 2) Elizabeth Banks: $2.44 billion, 1) Bradley Cooper: $2.48 billion.)

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But while it’s a problem I have with the show, it’s also a critique I have with the original film. The thing I found alienating about “Wet Hot American Summer” is that yes, the ensemble is incredible, but for so much of the movie characters are off in their own little worlds, with their own little problems that barely sustain five minutes of storyline. Does Molly Shannon ever leave her craft cabin once in the movie? At least in the series, she gets some screen time with actors who aren’t children.

And I think that problem applies to both the new and old casts in the series. It basically breaks my heart that 90 percent of Josh Charles’ involvement in the show is watching Camp Firewood from afar and wearing polo shirts. Even if he is wearing a lot of polo shirts at once. That being said, I still loved seeing the new faces brought into the mix. Who do you think were the standouts?

BT: Of the new additions, Charles and his three-man team of Reaganite rich kids at rival Camp Tigerclaw are good but quickly usurped by a to-remain-unspoiled female counselor. In all honestly, only a few returning cast members struck my funny bone. As mentioned earlier, Rudd absolutely dominates the screen in what may be my favorite role of his (among many worthy contenders), and Janeane Garofalo is given a fun story that’s both specific to the series and cleverly reminiscent of what she went through in the film. A few others are hit and miss, including Elizabeth Banks’ Lindsay — who gets off to a strong start before falling prey to the “too many cameos” issue — and Bradley Cooper’s Ben, who’s pretty great even if he’s too tied to his relationship plot with Michael Ian Black’s McKinley. (Though only a monster could gripe too much about that.)

I’d be curious to know how you would’ve reacted to the movie if you’d seen it before these people were megastars. Personally, “Wet Hot American Summer” was never just a chance to watch a bunch of now-famous people before they broke out. It was a loving send-up of nostalgia, ready to mock our fondest childhood memories by showing how preposterously perverted we were (among other common teenage traits), but never above embracing our wistful memories of time gone by. Throw in a dose of off-the-wall humor — like a chef who falls in love with his refrigerator — and you’ve got yourself a unique and tasty cocktail. “First Day of Camp” is closer to a teenager’s take on jungle juice; too many ingredients, and only a hint of the right flavors.

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LM: For me, I admit, that could be a big factor in why I didn’t necessarily appreciate the movie on its own merits. (Though even in 2001, I was a big fan of Janeane Garofalo, Paul Rudd and Michael Ian Black, so who knows for sure.) And I will say that on a creative level, I don’t disagree that the show feels like a step down from the movie; certainly it turns out that stretching out the same joke over one hour and 37 minutes plays a lot better than it does over six episodes.

But I gotta say, there is a lot of joy in the buckets and buckets of people who were brought in for a quick ridiculous cameo. It’s more than just pretty faces. Though there are plenty of those, too, they get some ridiculous material to play with; I found there were enough really charming moments for me to be entertained overall.

What it comes down to, ultimately, is that Showalter and Wain have always been undeniably hilarious people, but in recent years their level of craft has become uneven, due to a lack of real discipline. Undisciplined, in fact, might be the best description across the board for “First Day of Camp.” Good things can sometimes come out of that sort of chaos, but that chaos could use some boundaries.

Grade: C+

Full Season Review (With Spoilers)

BT: As I started our original review with a quote, it only seems fitting to kick off our final thoughts (now with spoilers!) on the last two episodes of “Wet Hot” with another one:

“I’m hearing you, and what I’m hearing is that this is bothering you. […] Now, I don’t have an answer that I feel is going to satisfy…”
Spoken by the great Jon Hamm, these words may as well have been delivered directly to camera, as I can only imagine at least a few audience members (including myself) will react to the TV series as Janeane Garofalo’s Beth reacted to “The Falcon”: with inexplicably forgiving confusion. Though a mess, and a nonsensical one at that, David Wain and Michael Showalter’s effort is loaded with positive vibes, likable actors and a spirit you want to root for; especially in its final installments. While not quite the series’ salvation, I did feel better about the show as a whole after enjoying a few creatively executed bits in its final episode. 
Of course, I’m talking about the showdown between The Falcon and Christopher Meloni’s Gene the Cook — a surprisingly well-choreographed action scene — and everything Paul Rudd says and does, from his standoff with the slightly-too-aggressive Josh Charles to his immediate frustration with his new girlfriend, Katie. Considering you liked the first six episodes a bit more than I did, I’m quite curious as to how these obvious highlights sat with you in the end.

LM: The line you quoted above is the point where I decided that the final episode of “First Day of Camp” was maybe the show’s finest achievement. Between that final Hamm/Meloni showdown (confirming that Meloni is maybe the season’s MVP, second only to Rudd) and a few other “resolutions” to the season’s ongoing plotlines, it was a treat. (Also, there was more Chris Pine! That was quite quite welcome.)

I will say, though, that there are a few moments where, no matter what Wain and Showalter might say, the struggle to unite their insanely famous cast was pretty apparent. DJ Ski Mask? C’mon.Also, in general Showalter and Wain’s approach to comedy has maybe a 60-70 percent success rate, especially the way they take established cliches and make the bit “oh, it’s LIKE that cliche, but we’re doing the opposite.” Sometimes that works, and sometimes it just comes off as lazy. Riffing on cliches isn’t nearly as interesting as fresh jokes, and yet there are more examples of this throughout the final two episodes: Ken Marino buying condoms at the store was just painful.
But I’m glad that the season improved for you as a whole. After watching the whole package, did it improve enough, though, for you to raise its grade?  

BT: I might be tempted to go up to a “B-,” but I agree with you on the flaws that are still apparent, despite the uptick in quality for these final frames. At least DJ Ski Mask kept Bradley Cooper’s character in the mix. He was absent altogether from the final Camp Firewood vs. Camp Tigerclaw showdown, as was Amy Poehler — an even more noticeable and regrettable loss. Moreover, their characters’ development was all too limited because of Wain and Showalter’s reliance on old jokes. All that happened to Ben was meeting McKinley, which — while sweet — was overextended for easy “Awwww’s.” And Poehler’s poor Susie was basically written out without a proper sendoff after the play ended, leaving little for us to remember other than cloying recollections of playing second fiddle to John Slattery’s largely unfunny Broadway director. 

These kind of hangups overwhelmed an already inconsistent script, even for characters who were sent off in style. Meloni was definitely the silver medal winner (next to Rudd’s repeat gold performance), but his forced refrigerator humping seemed like a desperate means to tie together past and future storylines. Why no one mentions Lindsay’s past life as an older journalist in the movie seems like an oddity I didn’t have to worry about until now, and Chris Pine’s survival just makes me wonder where he’s at in future (whereas his gruesome and unexpected death worked for me because it felt like they had to get rid of him). 
Some of these issues could be resolved if they do in fact make another season, but my excitement for “Second Day of Camp” is currently lower than for “Arrested Development” Season 5. Mitch Hurwitz’s less-than-grand experiment at least felt ambitious, while Wain and Showalter’s is more functional but doesn’t feel as well-orchestrated.

LM: In conclusion…

Grade: B-

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