In a fourth season episode of How I Met Your Mother (don’t worry, this is going somewhere), Ted discovers that his girlfriend Stella has never seen Star Wars. He’s mortified because, like any white guy in his 30s, he’s obsessed with the original trilogy and will spend hours explaining why the prequels are unwatchable. One night, Ted screens A New Hope for Stella, and decides that, if she likes it, they can get married; if not, they’re toast. (She ends up hating it, but lies to Ted.)
Wet Hot American Summer, David Wain and Michael Showalter’s 2001 cult classic, is many people’s Star Wars, a relationship-breaker of a comedy. Do you really want to spend the rest of your life with someone who doesn’t understand why the Going to Town scene is funny?
So, expectations were high coming into First Day of Camp, the Wet Hot prequel that premiered on Netflix last Friday. Would it be as good as the original? Why now? Did you say dick cream? That we can even ask these questions, especially the one about dick cream, is amazing — the original cast includes Oscar and Emmy nominees, Ant-Man, Det. Elliot Stabler, and the director of Pitch Perfect 2. There’s no reason, say, Bradley Cooper had to reprise his role as Ben and step into a zoot suit with Michael Ian Black, but he did, and now I forgive him for The Hangover Part III.
Best of all, it wasn’t a complete disaster. First Day of Camp started slowly, but the set-up paid off in the stellar second half of the season. Here’s one moment from each of the eight episodes that rivals, if not tops, anything from the movie. Spoilers ahead, obviously.
Episode 1: Paul Rudd on a motorcycle
It’s not fair. Paul Rudd has maintained his boyish, ageless charm for 14 years, and he was the MVP of possibly the movie and definitely the show. Andy’s first words: “I’m cool.” Then, “Smells weird, who beefed?” I propose that everyone enter a room on a motorcycle at least once their life, and “who beefed?” should replace “hello” as the standard greeting. The only disappointment with Rudd’s storyline, which includes the already iconic observation “trees look weird if you squint at them,” was that we never saw him and Elizabeth Banks bathe in the fountain of youth.
Episode 2: Ms. Patti Pancakes
Not everything in First Day of Camp worked. Amy Poehler lost some of her enthusiastic toxicity from the movie; it was nice that Academy Award nominee Bradley Cooper agreed to do the show, but many of his jokes didn’t land; and the less said about David Wain’s Israeli charmer, the better. Michael Showalter fared pretty well, as innocent Cooper, sweaty President Reagan, and Ms. Patti Pancakes, Wet Hot‘s Mrs. Featherbottom. She came to the rescue of Kevin, whose poop-covered bathing suit nasty redhead Drew found in the woods. The Yahtzee-loving kid playing Drew was a fantastic asshole who provided just the right amount of obnoxiousness; his next role is in AMC’s much-anticipated Preacher. How many bathing suits will Jesse Custer sh*t in?
Episode 3: Can of Vegetables
Find me an origin story better than Mitch’s. Spoiler alert: You can’t, because it’s perfect. H. Jon Benjamin, sounding like a stressed out Bob Belcher, falls into a puddle of toxic goo (which Jason Schwartzman samples many times just to make sure it’s actually hazardous, a joke that got funnier every time) and turns into Can of Vegetables. It makes a sort of absurd sense — why wouldn’t you turn into a talking vegetable can, who can suck his own dick, no less, if you trip into green sludge while holding one? Don’t tell me cans, I know about cans. Pumpkin scarecrows, too.
Episode 4: “I’m a damn good astrophysicist”
“Auditions” is when the show went from good to flat-out great. This episode has Weird Al’s cameo (a joke that paid off later when Banks lists the character archetypes at Camp Firewood — the jock, the sidekick, etc. — including Weird Al), Ben and McKinley’s backstage meet-cute, Jon Hamm’s Falcon taking down the same Indoor Kids from the movie, and Kristen Wiig flirting with Josh Charles. But episode four belonged to David Hyde Pierce, who made his first appearance (and one of only two) as Associate-Professor Henry Neumann. It was a well-directed cold open, zipping through the brilliant, yet frustrated Neumann’s life, including this poem of an insult.
That should have been DHP’s Emmys acceptance speech, all four times.
Episode 5: The Rockin’ Knights
Let’s talk about the guest stars, all the actors and actresses who weren’t in the movie. The best performances came from the stars who knew to chew the scenery, like brooding protopunk genius Eric (Chris Pine), loose Courtney (Kristen Wiig), snobby Blake (Josh Charles), and sweaty lawyer Jim Stansel (Michael Cera), who we’ll get to soon. Surprisingly, John Slattery’s Claude didn’t make much of an impression; neither did Lake Bell’s Donna, a mostly blank slate for Showalter and Wain to play off of. They fit into the Camp Firewood universe (or Rock ‘n’ Roll World) because they didn’t feel like stunt castings. Even when I wasn’t loving First Day of Camp, I was still enjoying it, because it’s fun seeing Jordan Peele and Paul Scheer trade lines, or Schwartzman on the lam, or Pine drink a sugar-free Tab before dying (OR DOES HE?) hours later.
Episode 6: “Yes, I am dead/Yes, I am a ghost”
“Electro/City” had two of my favorite scenes in the entire series… the titular musical, which NBC needs to turn into a live production, and every line delivered by Cera, also known as Johnny Pisspot. With his barely-there mustache and ill-fitting suit, he looked like every inexperienced lawyer, except this inexperienced lawyer ran out of the courtroom during a trial. He returns only when Robot-Boy Steve (gold star for him) hand-delivers some damning evidence, and the judge rules in his favor. Good thing, because we know what happens when Johnny Pisspot doesn’t get his way.
It’s a shame he had to die. Now no one will keep on loving him.
Episode 7: “I trusted you with my diaphragm!”
After the success of Electro-City, the Camp Firewood staff gets together for a party, which is one of many reasons why First Day of Camp was, as a whole, more successful than Arrested Development season four. Scheduling allowed the ensemble cast, with their undeniable chemistry, to be in the same scene together, and even if they couldn’t, the writers found clever ways around it, like DJ Ski Mask. And when they did go on their separate ways, it still worked, because they played to each other’s strengths and weaknesses, like confident Rhonda (Michaela Watkins) watching unsure Victor (Ken Marino) try to put a condom on in a splendid display of physical comedy. The cast would do anything for each other, even retire from giving blowjobs to every member of the Little River Band.
Episode 8: Meloni vs. Hamm
First Day of Camp saved the best for last (or last in the show and first in the movie…? This is confusing). Even if the seven episodes before it had been busts, this still would have been a very good show because we got to see crazy-eyed Christopher Meloni and handsome-as-ever Jon Hamm have a knife fight in a kitchen, which is something I didn’t know I wanted until I saw it. It was better than the similar brawl in Spy, superior to the living room and bathroom squabble in Pineapple Express, and if Vin Diesel and The Rock want to reenact it for Furious 8, with Toretto humping a fridge while Hobbs looks on disgusted, well, they should do that. “Day is Done” was a great capper to a mostly very good season, with an excellent recap of everything that happened.
“I had to break up with Donna after Yaron tried to make us have a threesome. And then Camp Tigerclaw showed up because Andy stole Katie away from Blake, and they tried to destroy the camp. And then, well, right after that, President Reagan and the U.S. military also tried to destroy the camp, but that was also after they shot Eric, the hermit who lived at camp and turned out to be a musical legend. And then that new counselor Lindsay, well she saved us all because she was secretly a rock-magazine journalist. And then Gail blew off Jonas at their wedding, and his name was actually Gene, and he fought in Vietnam. And Gene also got beaten up by an assassin named Falcon, who tried to kill Beth and did kill Greg and this guy Jim Stansel. But then he turned out to be good the whole time, which I acknowledge doesn’t make any sense, and he was only here to protect Mitch, who was turned into a can of vegetables. And then also Ben and McKinley are dating, Susie hooked up with Claude, Neil got laid, Victor didn’t get laid, and Abby had her period…
So, it was a hard day.”
A lot happened in First Day of Camp, but there was nothing as epic as Hamm vs. Meloni, who took it higher and higher. And with that, this is the Beekeeper, signing off.