Episodic television criticism has its inherent shortcomings, but some shows are better suited for episodic analysis than others. Wet Hot American Summer: First Day Of Camp defies the medium. First Day Of Camp isn’t only a limited series, it’s an especially short limited series that grew out of a beloved movie and demands to be watched like one. Grading each episode relative to the others is a valid exercise, but it doesn’t separate the good episodes from the bad ones so much as it separates the comedic peaks from the plot-heavy troughs. The funnier an episode of First Day Of Camp is, the better it is, even if it’s barely coherent and does nothing to advance the story (which describes most Wet Hot jokes.)

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Despite the show’s reliance on random silliness, Michael Showalter and David Wain have done an admirable job keeping the plot moving and anchoring the plot developments in the series to the continuity of the movie. Even though so much time has been devoted the development of Camp Firewood’s production of Electro City, if Showalter and Wain scrapped the show entirely and went another direction, few would have cared (if they noticed at all) prior to “Auditions.” Now that the female lead has gone to Katie and Andy has landed the male lead with his evocative original composition, “Champagne Eyes,” Electro City is instrumental to a relationship the audience wants to see play out.

Of course, that’s only important to the swath of the First Day Of Camp audience that is familiar with the movie rather than someone coming to it cold (which is not inconceivable, given the buzz around the project, Netflix’s enthusiastic promotion, and the involvement of so many well-known performers.) Those meeting Andy and Katie for the first time might have some general curiosity about how Andy’s involvement in Electro City bears on his plan to blow her life with his long, greasy dick, but the uninitiated would probably just as soon get better acquainted with Miss Patti Pancakes. After all, contemporary television loves its anti-heroes, and Patti could make for a rich, layered character study. What leads a person to infiltrate a sleepaway camp and defecate in other people’s shorts? And what if that person was to use that power for good instead of evil? What happens if she becomes constipated? It could be like Dexter but with actual shit instead of Dexter’s figurative bullshit.

The point is, because plotting is largely irrelevant to the success of First Day Of Camp, the plot developments are as equally hit-or-miss as the silly, tossed-off jokes, but they require much, much more time and commitment. If one of the jokes isn’t your speed, it breezes past only to be instantly replaced with another one you might like more. On the other hand, if the slowly cresting love affair between Susis and Claude Dumet doesn’t interest you, too bad. You have to soak in it for a few minutes. Like “Lunch” before it, “Auditions” spends a bit too much time on plot advancement that I wasn’t terribly interested in at the expense of the jokes. Ideally, a First Day Of Camp episode doesn’t have to choose between comedic nonsense and coherent storytelling, but the more it feels like a proper television episode, the less likely it is to be funny. I’m as fond as anyone of David Hyde Pierce’s Professor Newman, but did I want to spend the entirety of a cold open learning how his frustration with academic elitism led to him renting his Camp Firewood-adjacent cabin? No, not really. But it’s the ultimate your-mileage-may-vary situation. I’m sure someone is probably really thrilled to have that part of the Wet Hot mythology fleshed out, I’m just not that person.

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Though “Auditions” struggles to balance the humor and the story, it succeeds more often than it fails, and that has a lot to do with the strange tale of Jackie Brazen (“Weird” Al Yankovic), a hypnotist hiding a shocking secret. Sure, the Reagan administration might not have the best command of dead-drop protocol, but their technology game is unparalleled for the era. Jackie Brazen emerges from his expertly tailored robot suit to reveal The Falcon, who, let’s be honest, could have probably breezed into Camp Firewood on looks and charm alone, but this is much funnier. In this instance, Showalter and Wain manage to make a plot development one of the episode’s funniest, most absurd moments. That’s a tough needle to thread, but hopefully there will be more moments like that going forward.

Stray observations:

  • Logan St. Bogan is the episode’s other highlight. That kid’s a star.
  • Loved the scene with The Falcon confronting the local street toughs in the convenience store. That was one hell of a leg sweep. “My uterus!”
  • “Heart Attack Love” is a great song. Craig Wedren is crazy good at approximating the songs of the era.
  • This show is surprisingly good at building to cliffhangers.

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