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Mark Humphries reviews new Netflix comedy Wet Hot American Summer

ReviewMark Humphries
Amy Poehler and Bradley Cooper in the Netflix original series “Wet Hot American Summer: First Day Of Camp”. Photo by: Saeed Adyani/Netflix

Amy Poehler and Bradley Cooper in the Netflix original series “Wet Hot American Summer: First Day Of Camp”.
Photo by: Saeed Adyani/Netflix

16 years after Return of the Jedi hit cinemas, George Lucas decided to return to his Star Wars universe with a series of prequel films which answered a bunch of questions no one wanted answers to. What would Darth Vader be like if you took away everything that made him interesting? What do the galaxy's politicians get up to in the Senate while all these "Star Wars" are going on outside? How would Obi-wan Kenobi deal with a trade dispute? The resulting films were, needless to say, underwhelming.

 

Author - Mark Humphries is a comedy writer/performer best known for his work on The Roast (ABC2, Guardian Australia). 

Author - Mark Humphries is a comedy writer/performer best known for his work on The Roast (ABC2, Guardian Australia). 

Now, 14 years after Wet Hot American Summer hit cinemas, that film's creators have returned with a prequel series of their own: Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp. Taking place a few weeks before the events of the film, this series also answers a series of questions no one needed answers to, but is filled with so many absurd premises and ridiculous backstories that the prequel is actually more enjoyable than the original film.


It must be incredibly difficult to recreate the tone of something you made more than a decade ago. The interceding years would surely have seen changes to your interests, opinions and sense of humour. And yet, somehow, writer Michael Showalter and director David Wain have succeeded at creating a series that sits very comfortably alongside their 2001 film.


L-R: Zak Orth, Michael Showalter, Ken Marino, Joe Lo Truglio and Nina Hellman in the Netflix original series “Wet Hot American Summer: First Day Of Camp”. Photo by: Saeed Adyani/Netflix.

L-R: Zak Orth, Michael Showalter, Ken Marino, Joe Lo Truglio and Nina Hellman in the Netflix original series “Wet Hot American Summer: First Day Of Camp”.
Photo by: Saeed Adyani/Netflix.

It's at this point I should say I'm not really a fan of the film nor this series, but I do admire what the creators have pulled off here. Compare Wet Hot American Summer with Arrested Development. Both had a cult following among comedy fans, both had casts that went onto huge successes and both were revived years later as a series for Netflix. The difference is that. In the intervening years, the creators of Arrested Development seemed to have forgotten some of what had made the original a success. The show's chronological and interweaving structure was thrown out the window, likeable characters like Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman) were suddenly lacking self-awareness and in the case of Jeffrey Tambor, the actor seemed to have forgotten how to play the role.

 

No such problems arise here. Although the cast of Paul Rudd, Amy Poehler, Bradley Cooper, Elizabeth Banks et al have undergone massive career transformations since the film's release, they slip effortlessly back into their roles. And even though they're technically playing younger versions of their characters, the physical transformations they've undergone actually add to the humour. One particularly funny moment features the forty-something Michael Showlater displaying genuine shock at being offered a drink as his character is still "underage".

 

While the film was largely a parody of 1980s Summer Camp movies like Meatballs, the eight half-hour episodes of First Day of Camp expands the comedic territory to make room for parodies of other genres such as courtroom dramas and musical theatre. Elizabeth Banks' story is in some ways a parody of 1999 Drew Barrymore film Never Been Kissed, with Banks revealed as an adult journalist masquerading as a teenager for her next story. As we've seen recently with the release of Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman, fans can get quite upset when you change their perception of beloved characters. I suspect WHAS fans will be a little more forgiving about some of the new details that emerge about the characters of Camp Firewood.


Marguerite Moreau and Paul Rudd. Photo by: Gemma La Mana/Netflix

Marguerite Moreau and Paul Rudd.
Photo by: Gemma La Mana/Netflix

The entire adult cast has returned for the series and has expanded to include other high-profile performers like Chris Pine, Jason Schwartzmann and Jordan Peele. There's also at least three cast members from Mad Men, so I imagine they were thrown into a van after that show's wrap party. The campers themselves are played by new cast members who, in some cases, are having to recreate another child's performance from the original film. George Dalton as the camp's non-stop radio announcer does well to capture the essence of the original performance and yet make the character his own.

 

Comedy is, of course, subjective, but I imagine if you were a fan of the film, you'll be very satisfied with the series. Part of the difficulty for any comedy sequel (or in this case prequel) is that it can be difficult to deliver a similar comedic experience and yet still surprise an audience.

The creators have done well to incorporate familiar elements from the film without repeating jokes. In other words, this is no The Hangover: Part II. Personally, I don't really understand what made the film a cult classic. Sure, it had a strong ensemble cast and I certainly laughed in parts, but not so much that I thought it needed an eight episode prequel. That said, I did find the series funnier than the film. A scene in which one young camper shit his pants then abandons them results in a hilarious encounter which reminded me of a similar exploration of pant-shitting in Showalter/Wain's 2014 film They Came Together. I've gotta hand it to them: these guys know how to do comedy about pant-shitting.

All eight episodes of Wet Hot American Summer will premiere on Friday, July 31 at 5:00pm AEST exclusively on Netflix Australia


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