Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp succeeds where so many other reunions of beloved film and television projects have failed, and it does so with a pretty simple philosophy that marks all of David Wain and Michael Showalter's filmography: make as many jokes as possible as quickly as possible.
There's plenty of fan service in the eight episodes reuniting Camp Firewood's teen counselors, with a bonkers Last Crusade approach to origin stories (see Gail get engaged again and again before she finally meets her Ron! Watch Jonas turn into Gene over the course of a day! Be there for the very moment that Abby Bernstein becomes a boy-crazy woman! Learn the true story of how Lindsay got to Camp Firewood! Follow the elaborate series of events that results in Beth being named camp director!), but it works as much more than fan service for two different reasons: 1) First Day of Camp constantly reveals the structure of the joke, laying bare with a guileless smile all of the dumb mechanics that go into most lazy sitcom writing and 2) it's just very, very, very funny. Uproariously funny. Maybe too funny! We'll all need to watch the series at least three or four more times to catch all of the jokes, which is fitting, considering the rewatchability of the film that inspired it.
The writing is so efficiently structured, layering in dozens of jokes in one scene, jokes that anticipate the movie, jokes that advance the plot, jokes that further the bananas character development, jokes that are there for no other reason than to make us laugh. Wain and Showalter have been writing together for so long, and they've done so much great television writing (The State, Stella, Childrens Hospital, Newsreaders) that transforming Wet Hot American Summer into a half-hour sitcom makes so much sense - far more sense than the more common occurrence of a sitcom reuniting as a feature film, trying to stretch out jokes and arcs and character dynamics that were always intended for half-hour doses.
It's a good thing that there are only eight episodes of First Day of Camp, as sadly brief as that feels, because Wain and Showalter don't overreach their joke capacity. It feels, in some way, like they've been writing this for the past fifteen years, like every time they hang out or work on another project, they couldn't help but revisit Camp Firewood in the hopes that one day they'd be able to make it official. You can watch First Day of Camp all at once, and most people probably will, but each episode also works brilliantly as a piece. The middle of each ep might get a little muddied with all of the dozens of characters and storylines, but each entry starts and ends on such a strong, rousing note that you won't even notice.
On that tip: beginning every episode with Jefferson Starship's "Jane" feels like such a no-brainer, but every single time we hear it, the song both triggers our nostalgia instinct and gets us hyped, a trashy, stirring anthem that feels like home to Wet Hot American Summer fans. And of course, ending the series with "Higher & Higher" had to be a mandatory decision, but First Day of Camp works the song in so perfectly with Chris Pine's bizarro arc that it no longer feels perfunctory - it's just a natural progression of a storyline already in motion. As many jokes and beats as we knew would have to make an appearance in First Day of Camp (can of vegetables, Jim Stansel, the fridge, the breaking glass noise, "for my/your pussy"), these moments never arrive the way we expect. They're always surprising and deeply embedded in the weird but somehow coherent narrative of the show.
And let's talk about Chris Pine. Let's talk about Lake Bell and Jason Schwartzman and Jon Hamm and Kristen Wiig and John Slattery and Michael Cera and Michaela Watkins. The Wet Hot American Summer cast actually went to camp together (and this set does a great job of recreating Camp Towanda, the Pennsylvania filming location of the movie, but the impractical part of me wishes that the cast had gone back and stayed in their cabins and eaten the crummy camp food again); many of them became famous together and went on to work together on much bigger projects. They have history, and we see that history onscreen - they all fall back into their characters with such ease and poise, and honestly most of them really don't look anywhere near fifteen years older - but the newbies fit in with this screwy dynamic as if they'd always belonged. Who knew Chris Pine could be so hilarious, could fit in so comfily with that heightened Wain absurdity? Of course we knew it of all the rest of these actors - Bell, Schwartzman and the rest are some of the funniest actors working today, and that includes the two Mad Men alums - but their cohesion with the veterans is still a pleasant surprise. When the cast was first announced, there was a worry that First Day of Camp was shoehorning in too many guest stars, but again, there's nothing perfunctory about this cast. No one was shoehorned here; everyone belongs at Camp Firewood. (Or at Camp Tiger Claw, as the case may be, and it's great that the show brought us the snobs vs. slobs showdown that the movie deemed "well-worn territory" and "kind of trite.") The new kids are all great, too, including our brand new-but-feels old Beekeeper, a righteous asshole of a bully and a sweet, sad little romance that feels an awful lot like the one we saw play out between Coop and Katie in the film.
The other reason the new cast works is that they help to break up old dynamics. We don't see too much of the same pairings from Wet Hot American Summer in First Day of Camp (Ken Marino and Joe Lo Truglio are a notable exception, but those two men belong together forever). Though it's a joy seeing Ben resist Susie's advances and eventually fall in love with McKinley, a coupling that remains as genuinely romantic and compelling today as it was in the film, it's also a blast seeing Amy Poehler's Susie pair off with Slattery's Claude Dumet, or Molly Shannon's Gail do the electric slide with Christopher Meloni's Jonas/Gene. David Hyde Pierce, who doesn't become introduced to Camp Firewood until the film, gets a nice sequence with Rob Huebel establishing his move next door and away from the professorial life, and that frees Janeane Garofalo to be hilarious with H. Jon Benjamin or Schwartzman or Cera. Elizabeth Banks is incredible with Pine, and with Zak Orth and Nina Hellman's Nurse Nancy ("You're a real pal, Nurse Nancy"). It's also extremely refreshing to see Paul Rudd's Andy chasing after Marguerite Moreau's Katie for once. The best cast-cluster of the series, for my money, goes to Michael Showalter, David Wain and Lake Bell, in a love triangle that is completely new and amazingly weird. Many of these veterans were new to Hollywood when Wet Hot American Summer became a cult classic, but they're all successful and well-known by now. And even so, everyone's working like this is their first big break. Everyone's in top form, hilarious and intense and specific, not showing their work and clearly having a blast. The old cast members perfectly recreate their old characters and the new cast matches them in hilarity and strangeness.
Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp was an experiment, and a risky one, but one that ended up more successful than any other experiment like it, including Netflix's own in Arrested Development Season 4. Could it work again? I don't know that we actually need a sequel to this prequel: do we need to see all of the days between the first and last days of Camp Firewood, Summer of 1981? We don't, of course, but that doesn't mean I'd put it past Wain and Showalter to surprise us by making this experiment work again and again. After First Day of Camp, there's not anything I'd put past them.
And finally, some of my favorite jokes from the non-stop joke bonanza that is First Day of Camp:
“To Katie, from Andy. Re: me being your boyfriend. Hunker down for doinkage.”
"Good to see you you're my girlfriend."
Miss Patty Pancakes! And that excellent They Came Together pants-shitting callback.
“You telling me you don't want to hack yourself off a slice of this loooong greasydick?"
Each way the Camp Tiger Claw counselors refer to the Camp Firewood counselors. "A bunch of sunburnt Jews." Those hot dog wiener-eating "peasants from Camp Firewood." Also watching Josh Charles rip apart dollar bills and debate the relative hotness of Ayn Rand. Also watching Kristen Wiig apply lipstick and sassy dance-exit around a corner. Also this: "All couples to the dance floor post-haste." "Huzzah, a foxtrot!"
Every single moment of Electro City, including but not limited to the "Heart Attack" audition montage, Ben and McKinley's double zoot suit love, Logan's "Corner of the Sky" audition (more John Early!), Andy's "Champagne Eyes" audition, and most especially Susie's INCREDIBLE and terrifying inspirational speech. "If there's anyone here that doesn't have torments in them, then they can get THE FUCK OUT!" ("Is she always like this?" "Every. day.")
"You may have just uncovered the biggest government conspiracy since Watergate, which was about seven years ago."
Watching Weird Al unzip his face to reveal Jon Hamm's.
"Why don't you go freshen up?" "Well, I'm young, so I'm squeaky clean."
"I'll fart my way into that snatch, just you watch."
The entire conversation that takes place after The Falcon is revealed to be working with Gene. "I completely agree, there are a lot of elements that don't make sense here."
And finally, Coop's long-winded and thorough recap of the previous day's events. Quite a lot happened in this first day of camp.