Review: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’ goes back with all-star cast

Early in 2001's summer camp movie parody “Wet Hot American Summer,” Bradley Cooper's Ben told his fellow counselors, “Hey, let's all promise that in ten years from today, we'll meet again, and we'll see what kind of people we've blossomed into.”

It's been 14 years, and Cooper, Amy Poehler, Paul Rudd and Elizabeth Banks have blossomed into some of the biggest comedy stars around, while “Wet Hot” itself has become a beloved cult classic. Director David Wain and his co-writer Michael Showalter have remained tight with the cast, and as the movie's reputation grew well beyond the paltry box office (it grossed less than $300,000 during its initial release), there were rumors of a sequel that would fulfill Ben's request, and perhaps allow Wain and Showalter to spoof the reunion movie genre next.

Instead, all the original stars – and many, many, many more of the talented friends they've made as their careers have spread far and wide – have reunited for “Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp,” an eight-part Netflix series that's not a sequel to the original, but a prequel, set two months before the events of the film, which was set on the last day of summer at Camp Firewood.

So that means these actors – all of whom looked much too old to be playing teenagers in the first place – are now 14 years older and playing two months younger. And while some of them look remarkably similar (Paul Rudd definitely has a painting in an attic of himself as an old and wrinkly man), the clear passage of time for so many others is part of the larger absurd joke that made the movie such a treat, and that makes “First Day of Camp” a lot of fun, even if stretching out a 97-minute movie concept to around four hours (I've seen six of the eight episodes) leads to a more uneven overall comedy.

The primary joke of the movie involved how many things were happening in such a compressed time period, as the last day of camp included a talent show, a wedding between Ben and Michael Ian Black's McKinley, Rudd's Andy being involved in the death and/or disappearance of several campers, a romance between camp director Beth (Janeane Garofalo) and visiting astrophysicist Henry (David Hyde Pierce), and Henry and the camp's nerds trying to save everyone from being crushed by a falling piece of Skylab, among other events. Just look at how the counselors' trip into town turns from a classic '80s montage of teen hijinks into something much darker, followed by the revelation that everything we just saw took place in less than an hour:

That spirit's on display throughout “First Day of Camp,” which includes Ben and Poehler's Susie staging a Broadway-style musical in a day, multiple romances, a rivalry with the rich jerks across the lake at Camp Tiger Claw (represented by “Wet Hot” newcomers Josh Charles, Kristen Wiig, Rich Sommer, and Eric Nenninger), and a government conspiracy involving toxic waste, President Reagan's personal assassin, and (I think) time travel. A lot happens in any given day at Camp Firewood, it seems, and Showalter (who returns as the perpetually lovelorn, and now much less youthful, Coop) and Wain (who plays a new character, Israeli-born stud – and Coop's rival for the affections of Lake Bell's Donna – Yaron) continue to play into the extreme level of chaos.

They also have an even better sense of how to write for the great comic actors they've assembled. The movie was one of Banks' first professional roles, for instance, and she was mainly there as an object of lust for Andy. Here, she's given a complicated backstory that casts her original scenes in a very different light(*), while taking advantage of the sharp comic voice she's developed in the interim. As deranged, perverted Vietnam vet and camp cook Gene, Chris Meloni got the biggest laughs of the movie, and he pretty much walks away with “First Day of Camp,” as well, even if he spends a large chunk of the season playing a very different sort of character. And where the addition of new actors like Wiig, Jon Hamm, John Slattery, Michael Cera, Jordan Peele and many more could feel distracting or self-indulgent, instead each one comes in and instantly defines the ridiculous cartoon they've been asked to play so that no unnecessary time has to be spent establishing them alongside the campers and counselors. 

(*) I've seen the film many times, and rewatched a good chunk of it on Netflix after watching “First Day of Camp,” and pretty much all of it tracks. The show figures out how to properly set up the film's story about the recent divorce of arts and crafts counselor Gail (Molly Shannon), and even explains why H. Jon Benjamin, who was heard in the movie as the voice of a sentient can of vegetables, is here playing the camp's director Mitch. You could follow all of what happens in “First Day of Camp” without having seen the movie, but 1)If you enjoy the show at all, you will love the film, so why deprive yourself of that? and 2)It's even more fun if you've seen the movie and can recognize the callbacks.

Like the “Arrested Development” Netflix season, you can tell that some actors were more available than others, and there's less cross-pollination between the different camp cliques than there was in the movie. But it works better here because there's such a huge overall cast – Poehler doesn't appear with everyone, but every one of her scenes involves one or more of Cooper, Rudd, Black, Slattery, and movie holdover Marguerite Moreau as Katie – and because the stories are interspersed from episode to episode, so that we're not asked to just watch play rehearsals for a half hour, followed by an installment set entirely at Camp Tiger Claw. (Though that would be tricky, since Charles spends most of his time commenting on events at Camp Firewood that he's just watched through binoculars.)

I laughed a lot at these first six episodes, but more isn't always more with “First Day of Camp.” The movie is essentially a collection of sketch comedy ideas all set at the same camp, many of them benefiting from how rapidly they came and went, like the way the search for Ken Marino's rogue rafting guide Victor suddenly morphs into a frantic kidnapping-style drama. In having to fill eight episodes, even with a huge cast and number of storylines, there's rarely an opportunity for Wain and Showalter to hit a joke quickly and move on. Some of the stories, like the explanation for why Gene is so different, or Coop's ongoing difficulty at reading Donna's signals, benefit from playing out over time. Others, like Slattery's turn as a lecherous and demanding Broadway actor mentoring Susie, keep going more because the season has to fill the whole day than because there's that much life in the joke. There are even some stories that, simply because they've stuck around long enough, start to resemble a sincere version of the idea rather than a surreal parody of it.

In the first episode, the counselors are reminded that many of them were campers only a year before, “But now, you're all 16 or 17 years old.” Getting all the original actors back, plus all these bonus ones, feels like a miracle that I wouldn't count on Wain and Showalter being able to pull off again. But if they wanted to tell a story where Andy, McKinley, Susie and the rest were all campers at Camp Pinewood – preferably filmed after the actors have had even more time to age – I would love to see it.

Though I suspect I'd enjoy it more as a Netflix movie than another Netflix TV season.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at