Wet Hot American Summer: First Day Of Camp is the type of television project that evokes skepticism in the people most excited for it. Even some diehard fans of the cult comedy were worried about the risk of WHAS devolving from a lean, focused film to a bloated, meandering series (or, put another way, the risk of an end-of-summer Coop turning into a beginning-of-summer Coop.) That’s a concern for any film-to-television adaptation, but for WHAS, there’s also the matter of Michael Showalter and David Wain’s comedic sensibility, which is almost always deployed in films with a running time of just under or barely over 90 minutes. Joke-a-minute genre spoofs are supposed to get in and get out, and it’s been that way since the days of Zucker, Abraham, and Zucker. So how will WHAS work as what is essentially a four-hour movie?
That’s not a simple question to answer, but “Campers Arrive” does a phenomenal job of laying any concerns to rest. Netflix’s all-at-once distribution model will play a huge role in the response to First Day Of Camp, and it may put the audience in a bit of a bind. No one is obligated to barrel through the series in an afternoon, but it’s so easy to do—especially if all the episodes are as funny as “Campers Arrive”—and still might not be the optimal way to consume a type of comedy typically doled out in fine-dining portions. I’m reminded of that social experiment in which kids are offered a few pieces of candy immediately or a handful of candy if they can bear to wait for it. I’m almost certain First Day Of Camp works better if the episodes are spaced out by a day or so (as my reviews will be), but if I wasn’t reviewing them according to that schedule, there’s no way I’d be able to resist.
But these are heady concerns for another day, or rather, later in the day. For now, let us bask in the sunshine of “Campers Arrive,” a hilarious and pitch-perfect extension of the WHAS brand. It’s June 24, 1981, eight weeks before the events of the movie, and the Camp Firewood gang is the almost the same as it ever was. Coop is just as much of a mensch, and is equally vulnerable to infatuation. Andy is already putting way too much effort into acting like he could care less. Victor has already established his undeserved Big Man Around Camp image. Katie is sweetness and light, and Beth has the same no-nonsense approach that will later help her avert danger from a falling chunk of space-station debris.
Then again, a lot can change over a summer. Ben and McKinley haven’t figured out their situation yet, and if there is any justice in the world, their love story will take up as much real estate as possible. Arty is discovering his passion for broadcasting, and probably his aversion to soap. Neil doesn’t like having a penis stuffed in his ear, but as I think about it, that’s probably a consistent trait. They’re the same characters we know and love, but the two-month-earlier versions. It’s a testament to how meticulously Wain and Showalter reverse engineered the film that despite the visual joke of much older actors playing younger versions of their original characters, First Day Of Camp actually feels like watching the characters eight weeks before the movie. In truth, that joke only really works for Coop, who at 16 has the gut of a 54-year-old professional ice-cream taster.
“Campers Arrive” works admirably well as an episode of television as opposed to feeling like a 30-minute chunk of a really long movie, but it also has the first-episode advantage. It feels like a television episode because it gets to lay out all the plot elements First Day Of Camp will play with, including Camp Firewood’s financial woes, its fierce rivalry with the rich snobs at Camp Tigerclaw, and the pools of apparently radioactive sludge being dumped at the campsite. That it’s jam-packed with hilarious lines and typically absurdist sight gags is merely a bonus. It’s going to be a lovely day.
- It’s impossible to do a WHAS review that’s just a hail of joke bullets, so I’m not going to do that. Who has the energy? But the Strays will run long every time.
- Coop on Beth’s sense of humor: “It’s a very dry wit, but it’s very funny.”
- Josh Charles is such a fine addition to the cast, and I want him to devote the rest of his career to comedy.
- Lake Bell… man, where to even begin? Coop’s reunion with his “girlfriend” Donna is one of the funniest things I’ve seen in a long time. Bell nailed Donna’s reaction to Coop’s cloying sweetness: “Awww… ewww.”
- This show is clearly going to be densely packed with callbacks, as when Mitch is having his “snack,” a can of mixed vegetables with the top opened just enough.
- McKinley, in response to Andy’s crack about his shorts: “I got them from your mom’s dresser.” Andy: “Don’t make fun of the guy who dresses my mom.”
- Why is there a rich side of the lake? I’d love to read a history of the region.
- Electro City sounds breathtaking. That said, I couldn’t help feeling like John Slattery is slightly miscast, and I really liked him in 30 Rock’s “Brooklyn Without Limits,” which was just as silly. Maybe I’ll warm up to him.
- I love Drew. I love everything about Drew. I love every line Drew utters, and Thomas Barbusca is a genius. “What?! I like doing stuff like that!”