When you’re a camp counselor, you’re pretty much guaranteed to be initiated into the cult following of WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER the first time you spend a weekend with your co-counselors. You will quickly realize that a huge part of the appeal of this box-office flop is that it perfectly portrays what a camp environment is like. The cooks are off-balance, campers and counselors live in accelerated time, and things like a talking can of vegetables can be a…thing…
That’s how it was when I was a counselor (approaching 10 years since my first summer as a senior counselor), and the movie (and its bottomless pit of inside jokes, funny or not) has a special place in my heart. I opened up that special place to let the Netflix FIRST DAY OF CAMP prequel inside, and I tell you it has lit up my heart and soul like a pit of glowing toxic sludge.
The first episode is almost like a pilot. The jokes are not quite pitch-perfect, the characters are much older and distracting, and you’re wondering where so-and-so is and why all these big-time Hollywood actors and recognizable comedians are teaming up for this series. And then you get to the first joke or gag that makes you laugh out loud and you realize it has promise. Then, because it’s on Netflix, you rewatch the original movie and realize–HOLY SHIT–all those actors that seem out of place in the series were in the original. Yes, I know I said the movie had a special place in my heart, but I hadn’t seen it in a long time and I literally did not realize that Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks, Joe Lo Truglio, Amy Poehler, Bradley Cooper, and Christopher Meloni were all in the original movie. Just..I had no idea.
So, with that realization in mind, and the movie fresh on my mind, I moved onto Episode 2. Honestly, 2-8 are a blur and they are genuinely on-point and funny through and through. That should be enough for this review…but I’ll go a little bit deeper.
WHAS: First Day of Camp treats its die-hard fans to loads of backstory that make the original movie even better. We get why Molly Shannon’s “Gail” is so torn up in the arts and crafts cabin–she is in 3 relationships over the course of the first day of camp, and we get the origin of Judah Friedlander’s “Ron von Kleinenstein.”
While we may have thought that the talking can of vegetables was Gene’s PTSD causing him to hallucinate, we come to learn that it is actually the camp director who has fallen into a pit of toxic sludge to become a talking can that can suck its own dick. Now, we’ll talk more about Meloni’s “Gene” in a bit…
Poehler and Cooper get the most screen time (perhaps because Cooper only had a day to shoot, so they made the most of it) for their production of Electro City–an amazingly incoherent original musical that features, of all things, a two-person zoot-suit. This subplot includes solid backup with actors Jon Slattery (Mad Men) playing Claude Dumet–a sleazy yet likable stage actor–and Michaela Watkins (Everything you’ve ever seen) playing Rhonda, his chain-smoking, wild-hair-akin-to-Helena-Bonham-Carter, leather pants and black t-shirt, hip-thrusting, too-cool-for-school choreographer. Watkins owns her Character. Rhonda could easily have been lazily interpreted or even over-acted, but Watkins gets the most out of Rhonda’s limited screen time, by far overshadowing Slattery’s Dumet.
We also get to see Michael Showalter reprise the role of lovesick Coop, who’s love-interest on the first day of camp is a new character, Donna, played by Lake Bell (How to Make it in America). Coop, we learn, is the perpetually lonely and pining lovable loser. If the series went on in perpetuity, we have enough character development in Coop to know that Katie will be replaced by another girl, who will be replaced by another. Coop has to compete with Yaron for Donna’s affection. Yaron is played by co-writer David Wain, and while the character is funny, this subplot never really takes off, even when the three of them are fondling each other uncomfortably. It just doesn’t quite work.
That said, Showalter also plays President Ronald Reagan in a subplot that takes off into the land of the absurd and is a solid, ridiculous success that culminates in: a standoff between two rival camps and the U.S. military, a perfectly choreographed kitchen brawl between Meloni’s Gene and Jon Hamm’s Falcon, and a hilarious tongue-in-cheek recap of the entire subplot to a camper that point-by-point admits how absurd the whole thing is.
And that brings me to the overall review of this series. There is enough off-center humor in each episode to make you wonder what you missed, then make you go back and watch the whole thing over again. Showalter and Wain are not afraid to dive into the insane when it comes to their subplots, and they respectfully and carefully make nods to gags from the movie–Gene caressing a refrigerator, Victor Kulak painfully deciding to crawl under a tree root instead of jumping over it, and even Nurse Nancy uttering the same hilarious and uncomfortable line: “For my pussy.” The last is something that Showalter and Wain save for the very last episode–perhaps knowing that we were wondering why, of all characters, we needed Nurse Nancy back in the first place. Though, we do learn that she is just as sex-focused as the campers and counselors, needing lube and sharing her diaphragm. This is a reboot that works, plain and simple, because the writers take into consideration our appreciation of seemingly minor characters, like Nancy, and play to that. Perhaps this is the Netflix model–let the creators create and explore as they wish, to make the shows they really want without compromise.
A big part of the care taken to create this series is the respect shown for many of the original actors who were called back to be a part of the series. We get Samm Levine (Freaks and Geeks) as the voice of the Beekeeper, though the character of Arty is played by a different actor (as it was in the movie). As well, some of the nerd squad returns for the series as punks in the convenience store who get wasted by Falcon (specifically–Kid with Cape, Medieval Nerd, Mork Nerd). We may wonder what happened to Mallrat girl or Moose, but we can rest easy knowing that Madeline Blue (Cure Girl) is back for one episode, and that even Kerri Kenney (Reno 911) who had an uncredited role in the movie comes back as the real-estate agent who finds helps David-Hyde Pierce find a cabin to rent. Also, we get to see H. Jon Benjamin (Home Movies, every voiceover ever) as the camp director before being turned into a can of vegetables by a pit of toxic waste (voiceover!).
Then, there are the cameos–Weird Al Yankovic, Jon Hamm, John Slattery, Chris Pine, Michael Cera, Rich Sommer, Randall Park, Jordan Peele, Jason Schwartzman, Kristen Wiig, Josh Charles (The Good Wife), Paul Scheer–that are as much a feast as a necessity. As if the original cast didn’t turn out successful enough, there seems to have been some strings pulled and now we have a legitimate comedy (tiny gags like Kristen Wiig briefly mimicking oral sex on a tube of lipstick, or awkwardly posing as she leaves a scene) with jokes to miss and catch. Each bring something interesting to re-watch and explore. In this way, watching the series feels like watching the movie, which is all WHAS fans wanted–more, more, more.
Now, I said I’d talk about Meloni’s Gene, and here we go. By far, Christopher Meloni’s “Gene” takes the spotlight, and his character goes full-arc. We see him covering up his past (pretending to be a happy-go-lucky camp chef engaged to Gail), embracing who he is but being somewhat ashamed (he gets awkward when he realizes that his erotic mumblings have been heard), and then, in the movie (with epic love-yourself monologue) embracing his need to hump refrigerators and rub mud on his ass. Meloni takes an easily-cheesy character and makes him genuinely, perpetually, infallibly funny. This success is due in part to his straight-man sidekick Gary (A.D. Miles), who is Gene’s foil and friend. It helps that Gary and Gene haven’t aged–they are a direct transplant from the movie to the series–and as such their humor comes directly from the writing and not the visual irony that they look way too old to work at camp. They play off each other, and each scene is brilliantly played–either Meloni’s perfect delivery, subtle face-work, or even his oddball mumblings–even when you have a hard time reconciling the fact that Don Draper is fighting Elliot Stabler in the kitchen, you are strangely satisfied with their slapstick knife-throwing and bucket-on-the-head gag. Meanwhile, Miles plays the kitchen help to a T–the kind of offbeat guy who is the opposite of Napoleon Dynamite. You want to hang out with Gary and smoke with him, slack with him, take a nap in a hammock with him. He’s the perfect character (and actor) to play opposite the psychotic Gene. The kitchen scenes are where First Day of Camp win me over, though there’s plenty of excellence in the rest of the series to get you through happily in stitches.