There are many ways to screw up a sequel, especially a sequel to something as beloved as Wet Hot American Summer. Add in the fact that it’s 14 years later and it’s making the switch from a 97-minute movie to a four-hour television series and Wet Hot has a lot stacked against it. But David Wain and Michael Showalter don’t disappoint; it’s possibly the summer’s best comedy — even if you’re not familiar with the film.
First Day of Camp is a prequel to the movie, which took place on the last day of the camp in question, and it delights in having the actors — now much older, except Paul Rudd who apparently does not age — continue to play awkward, inexperienced teenagers. (In one inspired scene, we see a girl actually become a woman.) It’s an interesting choice but a smart one because the writers — and us viewers — already know how everything ends. The challenge, then, is creating backstories that not only fit the ending but are also, well, good. First Day of Camp succeeds at both — largely by upping the absurdity and getting really, wonderfully weird.
To get into specifics would ruin the fun but it’s fair to say that everyone gets the origin treatment. The prequel fleshes out Lindsay (Elizabeth Banks), who mostly hung around the movie making out with Paul Rudd, with an out-of-nowhere backstory about her true identity. We learn about the beginnings of Andy (Paul Rudd, who is spectacular here; every scene he shows up in became my new favorite scene), Coop (Michael Showalter), and Katie (Marguerite Moreau) and their tangled relationships which now also involve new character Donna (Lake Bell). There is a sweet courtship between McKinley (Michael Ian Black) and Ben (Bradley Cooper) and even deeper details about Henry (David Hyde Pierce). No stone is left unturned; there is a literally toxic origin story to the talking can of vegetables (H. Jon Benjamin).
This is all part of what makes the series so much unabashed fun. The movie is full of weirdness and eccentrics, of escalating drug-binges, Gene’s (Christopher Meloni) sporadic oversharing, and that always-funny glass-breaking sound effect. Most of it didn’t make much sense because it wasn’t supposed to make sense. The prequel tries to make the nonsensical sensical by putting an even bigger emphasis on the absurd. Within the first six episodes (there are eight total), in addition to all the usual camp-parody fare, there is also a big court trial and a deep government conspiracy that temporarily switches the genre into a thriller. And, surprisingly, it works.
Nearly everything in First Day of Camp works. There are some slight growing pains, as to be expected (especially considering the bloated runtime) but the actors’ straight-faced commitment (“I’m sixteen-years-old”) combined with Wain and Showalter’s established brand of humor makes every episode something special. The series is full of cameos (Jason Schwartzman, Kristen Wiig, multiple Mad Men alumni) who aren’t showing off to distract from the show but instead trying their best to fit in with the world. The sly physical comedy (the counselors are all apparently the slowest-running people in the world) and the ridiculous spectacle (a play titled “Electro City”), and Andy’s throwaway lines (“I was thinking about watching you ride a horse later”) are just as funny, if not funnier, than they were in the original.
One of the most impressive feats of First Day of Camp is that it is, at once, a perfect continuation of a cult hit that caters to its original audience and a solid, welcoming introduction to this strange little summer camp for new audiences. It’s funny on its own but it’s also chockfull of references and callbacks, providing rewards for its obsessive fans (because all Wet Hot American Summer fans, myself included, are obsessive). Everything about First Day of Camp feels like a miracle — getting all the actors back, staying faithful to the film, and going to some pretty weird narrative extremes even for a sitcom — but the biggest surprise is that it’s even better than expected.