At some point, given time, word of mouth, and endless rewatching, a cult classic evolves into a universally beloved media property. Netflix, it seems, has become the arbiter of that transformation—first and most notably by reviving the adored-but-prematurely-canceled Arrested Development for a fourth season. Now the service is continuing this effort by turning the 2001 comedy Wet Hot American Summer, a critical and commercial bomb on its release, into an eight-episode prequel miniseries. Though it all but vanished without a trace on release, Wet Hot’s shaggy, surreal charm and its cast of future stars have helped it endure over the years, and despite its bizarre positioning, the Netflix edition hasn’t missed a beat, even 14 years later.
The show comes from David Wain and Michael Showalter, who wrote the original film, with Wain directing. Playing into the ridiculousness of making a sequel to a 2001 comedy about summer camp whose actors were already too old to be playing teenagers, Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp doubles down by being set before the original film, even though Showalter (who stars as camp counselor Coop) is now 45 years old, and the rest of the ensemble isn’t far behind. Thus, the show thumbs its nose at anyone who might question its need to exist, but it goes a step further and invests its plot with real purpose. Those watching the first film likely didn’t wonder at the backstories of its ensemble, but First Day of Camp nonetheless has delightfully convoluted arcs for everyone involved. It seems silly at first, but true to the Netflix binge-watch model, the structure fuels the impulse to watch the next episode, and the next.
From the dawn of its original programming, the network has analyzed reams of data from its streaming customers to figure out what kind of shows they’d enjoy best, and no doubt the enduring popularity of Wet Hot American Summer and its now-famous ensemble were reason enough to justify First Day of Camp. Discovering the film was a cult comedy rite of passage for many people: Whether you were a teenager, a college student, or just someone clicking around Comedy Central late at night, it felt like joining a secret club. Some of the cast—Paul Rudd, Molly Shannon, Janeane Garofalo, David Hyde Pierce—were already recognizable. Others—Amy Poehler, Bradley Cooper, Ken Marino, Joe Lo Truglio—became famous later, but their participation in the film was a special badge of honor. The existence of First Day of Camp is the final confirmation of what the film’s fans already knew—that it had evolved past “cult” to just become a regular comedy classic.
But even if you haven’t seen the film, First Day of Camp is probably going to be an enjoyable watch, because it shines with the genial silliness that made the original film so instantly lovable. Not every joke lands, but there’s always more following close behind to make up for it. The ensemble is so vast that there's some fun in waiting whole episodes for some favorite characters to show up. And there’s also a perverse game to be played in seeing just how well or poorly actors have aged in the intervening years—Paul Rudd is clearly possessed of some magical formula for youth, while others struggle to even keep their wigs on their heads.
Netflix’s nefarious metrics aside, Wain and Showalter should be credited for not treating First Day of Camp as an opportunity for a cheap nostalgia cash-in. Much like the ambitious, plot-heavy fourth season of Arrested Development (which Netflix revived in 2013, seven years after Fox cancelled it), they’re aiming high rather than just bouncing around the same jokes fans remember. Remember the talking can of vegetables from the movie? First Day of Camp shows you exactly how that came about. Why was the astrophysicist Henry Newman (David Hyde Pierce) living nearby Camp Firewood? All will be explained. Did you think Elizabeth Banks’s character had a mysterious secret identity? Well, she does, and it’s one of the prequel’s best and most bizarre running threads.
First Day of Camp has avoided other pitfalls. Arrested Development’s fourth season got bogged down in investigating how time passed for its characters during the cancellation period, and was hamstrung by its ensemble’s busy schedules (the main characters barely appeared together onscreen). Whole episodes would concentrate on the story of a single character, robbing the show of its best quality: the cast’s chemistry as a group. First Day of Camp flits between its many cast members with greater ease and dodges any questions of “what have they been up to?” by flashing back in time. The result is ridiculous, but at no point does First Day of Camp feel like it’s struggling to justify its existence. You can put the nostalgia aside, and it’s still the best TV comedy of the summer.
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