NOTE: This review may contain mild spoilers for Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp. That said, the review is written to accommodate those who have not yet seen the series, and as such, will avoid discussion of major plot developments.
Back in 2001, a humble little comedy hit the big screen, called Wet Hot American Summer. The movie was slammed by critics, and barely made any money, but its performers included the then-unknown likes of Amy Poehler, Bradley Cooper, Paul Rudd, Ken Marino, Joe Lo Truglio, Elizabeth Banks, and Kevin Sussman, among others. That’s quite a lot of untapped talent that has since gone on to do much, much larger things in the present day, and that’s not even everyone!
Clearly, writer-director, David Wain was on to something with Wet Hot American Summer. Not only did the better part of its cast become very big, recognizable Hollywood names after they actually became known, but the movie they came together to do before hitting it big went on to become an enormous cult hit, with a very devout following of fans. In response to this, Wain tried to negotiate with studios for a follow-up to Wet Hot American Summer, which was eventually pitched as a television series, a pitch that every network ended up rejecting. It wasn’t until Netflix came around that Wain’s pitch was heard, leading to an eight-episode miniseries that served as a prequel to the original cult classic movie that inspired it.
Thus, we have Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, a Netflix Original miniseries that manages to do the impossible, and get most of the former movie’s cast back, regardless of how popular and busy they’ve now become! As the title suggests, the miniseries details the first day of camp at the fictional Camp Firewood, circa 1981, several weeks before the events of the movie, which unfolds as the last day of camp.
For those who haven’t seen Wet Hot American Summer, which is also free to view on Netflix for subscribers right now, it essentially serves as a spoof of 1980’s sex comedies, completely strung together on ridiculous cliches of the era, which form a tongue-in-cheek storyline of their own. The movie is best enjoyed by a particular audience that’s willing to understand it, but if you can wrap your head around where its sense of humour is coming from, it’s easy to see why the movie struck such a wonderful chord with its cult audience.
For better or for worse, the Netflix series presents the same kind of experience, untainted by age, nor the handful of small cast shuffles and additions. If you didn’t like the movie, you won’t like the miniseries, and it’s as simple as that. If you did like the movie however, then the Netflix series effectively expands the experience, filling in some otherwise confusing details about the movie, and presenting the same inspired brand of laughs and satire that still works to great effect today. It also doesn’t waste time trying to vainly drag itself out for the long shot of a renewal for a second season, simply being grateful that this original helping of eight episodes exists at all, allowing the miniseries to effectively stand as its own great complement to the movie.
If you are into the heavily satirical humour, then Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp pushes it even further, and every new place it pushes it to is absolutely hysterical. There’s still plenty of jabs at 1980’s sex comedies like Porky’s and Revenge of the Nerds and the like, though now the Netflix series expands the scope, to send up other 1980’s stylings, from legal dramas to war flicks of the era, and many other things in between. I’m obviously not going to spoil the many brilliant jokes, but if you open your heart to the silliness that Camp Firewood already perfected so many years ago, you’ll find that there’s a lot to love in its newer, more ambitious ideas.
This is largely due to the miniseries finding new cast additions that fit right in with the veterans. While not every last personality returns from the original movie, the bulk of them do, and the new characters feel right at home with the old ones as well. Whether it’s Jon Hamm playing a rather conspicuous hit man, Michael Cera playing an underdog lawyer, or Chris Pine playing an eccentric hermit, among other examples, the new talent feels like their characters could have existed just fine in the realm of the movie back in 2001. Nobody feels out of place, even when the miniseries is at its most bizarre, and everyone is clearly having a wonderful time, which makes Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp very easy to like, if you’re not taking it too seriously.
Most of all though, it’s the classic charm that makes Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp feel like such a success. Like the movie, the miniseries is proud of its lack of logic, and it thrives on it. There’s an elegant simplicity to the unapologetic silliness, which is balanced nicely by a genuine sense of heart and inspiration. The fact that the miniseries also provides payoffs to several long-running, open-to-interpretation jokes from the movie is also sweet icing on the cake.
It should be emphasized that Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp doesn’t waste any time trying to make sense, as with the movie, but it doesn’t really have to. Much like youth itself, anything can happen at Camp Firewood, and that’s what makes it feel like such a magical, lovable place. The movie and miniseries both take an experience that many would initially view as mundane, and turn it into this rich smorgasbord of comedic possibilities. The miniseries even takes a moment that builds off of a new twist with one of the old characters, to directly talk about exactly why Wet Hot American Summer strikes such a chord with many people, in a way that critics kind of missed the point of back in 2001. Camp Firewood is an all-inclusive place where everyone is represented, and more importantly, accepted, no matter how erratic or unstable they may seem. No matter who you are at Camp Firewood, you’re bound to have quite an adventure, and that’s something very uplifting and joyful.
All of that magic from the movie is alive and well in the miniseries, as pure and pleasant as it ever was. When it comes down to it, that’s probably all you need to know, if you’re already a fan of the movie. If you’ve never seen the movie however, it’s not essential to go back and watch it before watching the miniseries, if you’re interested, but you will get just a wee bit more if you watch the movie before the miniseries, even though the movie takes place after the miniseries’ events.
As for whether or not to take the plunge if you’re going in completely blind, well, if you have a sense of adventure, go for it! If you want another good Netflix comedy to enjoy, and don’t plan on wasting time asking questions, then Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp will both make you laugh and warm your heart, just as the movie did for so many since its initial release in theatres. This miniseries does come from an angle of cult humour that might not resonate with everyone, and definitely won’t resonate with people who already dislike the movie, but if you aren’t looking for convention, and are simply in it for the smiles, then you’ll enjoy your stay at Camp Firewood, especially if it’s a return trip.
Hopefully, the first day of camp won’t end up being the last!
- Perfectly captures the lovable appeal of the movie
- Cast is universally charming and hilarious
- New story expansions fit great with the movie's canon
- Somewhat dependent on having seen the movie, and liking it