“I’ve got nothing left… the music’s gone”
The line appears in the third episode of Netflix’s “Wet Hot American Summer: First Day Of Camp.” As spoken by Chris Pine playing a legendary musician that appears first in flashback and eventually in the show proper, there’s something indefinable—beyond Pine’s pitch-perfect delivery and his sad/confused hangdog expression—about what makes it so funny. It just is. These fleeting moments of truly-earned and hilarious comedy, mixed with a fully-committed cast and an overall amiable, progressive and silly worldview, are the reasons to catch up if you haven’t already binged the series this past weekend when it premiered. No doubt that fans of the original 2001 cult comedy will be satisfied, overstuffed even, with a bounty of callbacks and origin stories to their favorite moments and characters.
But I can’t help but think that, were Netflix to crunch the numbers hard enough and conclude that Pine’s rock God character was the most beloved thing in this new, bizarro prequel series (taking place on the first day of camp two months prior to the events of the first film), it’d be easy enough to rewrite the character’s history, despite what happens to him in the final episode. There’s no end in sight for the super-successful streaming service and original content provider to continue plumbing our collective nostalgia for things we really love. In Netflix’s world, the music is never gone. It can always be re-fashioned, updated, modified and, unfortunately, repeated ad nauseum. Because that’s what the cultural majority seems to want: more of the same. That’s why watching ‘First Day Of Camp’ is so complicated. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit it made me laugh a good amount, and it’s a perfectly breezy good time. But a lot of it falls flat and, worse, stretches itself too thin over 8 episodes and 4 hours, like watching the longest possible unrated DVD cut with every last bit of footage crammed in.
It’s clear the admiration that creators David Wain (who directs every episode and stars as new character Yaron) and Michael Showalter (who serves as writer and returns as Coop) have for these characters and the material, but the series is more than a tad indulgent. There’s almost definitely a very good 90-minute movie to be made from all this, but it seems that Netflix’s model encourages visual storytellers to indulge in their every whim, because… more is better. Audiences would probably never pay to see a four-hour prequel to “Wet Hot American Summer” in theaters, but break it up into smaller, more easily digestible bits to watch at home, and they can go for days on end, only stopping for bathroom breaks and the occasional meal. This impressive problem-solving should be applauded, but there’s been a disappointing lack of experimentation with the form.
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And therein lies the biggest issue with ‘First Day of Camp,’ which splashes a lot of paint all over its new, broader canvas but yields a high return on regurgitated jokes. Most of the new additions to the cast are welcome—Jason Schwartzman, Lake Bell, Josh Charles, Jon Hamm, to name a few—but they all function as vehicles to remind you of something you liked from the original, or as nothing more than the source of a familiar character’s origin. Again, it can be funny as hell sometimes, but it also can’t help but feel like needless filler. In a sketch show, the joke is all you need. In a film, there should be more. In an already bloated miniseries prequel, it can be frustrating when there’s nothing else to it.
What makes the original film so much damn fun is the unfiltered, all-the-chips-in embrace of the absurd, leading to much of its enduring, ever-quotable appeal. On the surface, the show doubles down on this (or, nearly every review written about it will have you believe), and the central conceit of setting it before the film’s events but with the same cast (even though they’re 15 years older) is a sly wink and wonderful distillation of that original absurdity, but that’s really it. In practice, the show is far more tame, never reaching the truly bizarre or transgressive moments that led to the film’s eventual cult appeal. For example, Andy’s (Paul Rudd, still great in the role) myopic negligence in the film led to several young camper’s deaths, in turn pushed so far that he even murders the witnesses (in one of the film’s great running gags). There are only faint glimmers of that in the show, and even though it’s still packed with plenty of naughty language it all feels significantly more tame and, sadly, more easily accessible.
This is all relative of course. When a movie has a demented chef falling in love and befriending a living, talking can of vegetables, it seems fair to expect the next iteration to go down other avenues and discover some new, truly bizarre moments of absurdist comedy. Here instead, we get the origin for the can of vegetables and a reference to the fridge gag. When ‘First Day’ isn’t spinning its narrative wheels, the show can feel rather lazy in the creators’ attempts at recapturing that weird humor. If anything can happen in this world, then it needs to go further and not just fill in massive plot gaps with a gag about how pointless and nonsensical it all is (you’ll know what I mean when you see Hamm’s part in all this).
I can’t be the only one who sees the irony in Netflix banking on our powerful nostalgia for the first film, which was often at its best when it was subverting 80s movie tropes that we still seem to be in love with to this day. It’s safe to say that’s the main driving force for this new chapter in the franchise. And even though I fear this review might be coming off more negative than I intended, I have to admit this show is leaps and bounds more successful than the fourth season of “Arrested Development,” but overall I found that at its best, ‘First Day’ is just good enough. I worry that “good enough” is fast becoming the bar to reach for these rebooted trips down pop cultural memory lanes. There’s little hope any resuscitated property like this can ever be as good as you remember. But that won’t stop people from trying.
Or, maybe there’s nothing to be worried about. Audiences, especially Netflix subscribers, want what they want, and they get it all at once. That model has proven to be a game-changer in the industry. There’s no denying that Netflix is very good at giving its customers what they want, and those customers in turn seem to be mostly happy to subscribe and tune in.
I’m not pointing my finger solely at ‘First Day Of Camp’, because it’s certainly not terrible. It’s more that I fear where this rebooted world will leave us decades from now, in a never-ending loop of recycled pop culture ephemera from our past that is now new again (but really just the same, only not as good). As much as I passably enjoyed this show, the very last scene in ‘First Day Of Camp’—where a character thought to be dead is shown alive, for no good or funny reason I can think of—pretty much sums it up. In this age, no dead horse can be beaten enough. The music’s never gone. There can always be more. Just because. [C+ / B-]