There was little in Wet Hot American Summer to suggest it should be resurrected. Here was a self-contained movie from 14 years ago, a film without an expansive mythology to explore or complex themes to interrogate, or even dangling narrative threads to wrap up. But Netflix’s Wet Hot American Summer: First Day Of Camp wound up as one of the great pleasures of the summer, a series so easily enjoyed that
it’s only now sinking in what a rare accomplishment it was. Revivals have become fairly common in the pop culture landscape, to the point that when a beloved, little-watched show is canceled from a network, the first thing fans ask is where else it might move to, as intact as possible. Even properties that are nearly as dormant as Wet Hot—Deadwood, Party Down—still get bandied about as candidates for spin-off movies or second lives on new outlets. This is despite the fact that revivals—with First Day Of Camp as the only real exception to my eyes—are almost unfailingly disappointing, pale retreads of the original, mostly taking the form of footnotes to the original. Audiences by now know to roll their eyes at news of sequels and remakes, having been burned too many times to get too excited by familiar titles, but despite the poor track record of properties unexpectedly brought back due to fan advocation, there’s still a lot of excitement surrounding each new one that edges towards release.
Other reboots—the Veronica Mars movie, the fourth season of Arrested Development, the Firefly movie Serenity—rode waves of anticipation, only to crash into disappointment when they finally arrived. None of those are without merit—both films captured some of the qualities that made their shows cult favorites, while Arrested attempted a structural feat of staggering ambition—but it’s telling how few fans prefer any of those over the original. Despite the creative teams returning, the old magic was gone, replaced by a lumpiness that’s easily explained, and should be minded by any other reboot that comes to fruition.
The key issue is one of simple space. In order to justify its existence, a reboot needs to both develop something new and pay tribute to the resonant characters, themes, or jokes of the original. That takes time—literally. By shrinking from full seasons to two-hours movies, both Veronica Mars and Serenity had less to play with, and the struggle to balance old and new was glaring. The A.V. Club’s review of Mars referred to it as a “load-bearing film” because of the disparate needs creator Rob Thomas had to satisfy. Rather than villains, it added, “the biggest obstacle Veronica faces is an abbreviated timeframe.” This was the same hurdle Joss Whedon tripped over in Serenity, where “the job of squeezing in a season’s worth of mythology—and bringing the story to a real conclusion—is virtually impossible to pull off” within a standard movie’s time constraints.
First Day Of Camp was successful for a lot of reasons, but a key one was that it went the other way on this point, expanding from a 100-minute movie to what’s essentially a 240-minute one. With more than twice the time to play around in Camp Firewood, the creators had the space to build out new stories and characters while not shortchanging the cast or casual tone of the original. As creator David Wain told The Hollywood Reporter, “We had first thought about it as a movie, and it was bursting at the seams before we even got into finishing the first draft. There was too much material that we wanted to get into, too many storylines, too many characters.”
Trying to imagine what a First Day Of Camp movie would have looked like, it’s difficult to picture left-field plot lines like Elizabeth Banks’ rock-journalist gig or Michael Showalter’s Ronald Reagan making the cut. That’s not a Wet Hot world I want to live in, and the problem was no doubt far more acute for Firefly, which had a much larger universe to explore.
It’s difficult to say what the proper size should be, since a lot depends on the complexity of the material and how much time passed between the finale and the reboot. It’s interesting how crowded the reboot of Arrested Development felt despite season four having two more episodes than season three (15 to 13). Its narrative density was too much for this modest increase, but it’s easy to imagine a much smoother and successful season had it returned with the 22-episode format of its first season. (Obviously, this is ignoring issues of budget and cast schedules.) My guess is that Veronica Mars and Serenity would’ve been more comfortable in the form of new episodes, and while the idea of mega-seasons for them is intriguing, even an abbreviated order that falls midway between movie-length and season-length would likely have made a huge difference. (I haven’t read them, but it doesn’t surprise me that Veronica Mars has also continued in the form of take-all-the-space-you-need novels).
Wet Hot’s revival was also eased by more focus on a style and setting than characters and story. The elements it had to replicate were aesthetic rather than thematic, a less complex task than Whedon, Thomas, or Arrested’s Mitchell Hurwitz faced. Even if it hadn’t been a prequel, viewers only had to grasp that this was a spoof of camp movies and they’d be good to go; that’s a lot less background than Whedon needed to provide any Firefly virgins marching into Serenity. (The limited-mythology factor also helped 24’s transition from series to movie to Live Another Day’s half-season; all you really needed was Jack Bauer kicking ass.)
Expansion should be the first prerequisite when it comes to reboots. Obviously creative teams have to work in whatever format the budget and distribution allows, but I’ve never understood the fans who, following a show’s cancellation, call for the story to be continued in movie form. For starters, even a long movie will give you less time in a beloved world than a short season. But more importantly, scaling back doesn’t work artistically when the property is as complex as cult favorites tend to be. This has been clear for long enough that back in 2010 we did a piece on films that should be TV shows; it’s difficult to name a show—even ones that flamed out after the first season—that would benefit from going the other way. When people talk about a movie version of Deadwood, Community, or Party Down, don’t they realize how much would have to be sacrificed?