THE SERIES "Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp"
WHEN | WHERE Starts streaming Friday on Netflix.
WHAT IT'S ABOUT It's the first day of summer at Camp Firewood -- the year is 1981 -- and the original counselors are all here, including Beth (Janeane Garofalo), who's joined by camp newcomer Greg (Jason Schwartzman). Also: Andy (Paul Rudd), Katie (Marguerite Moreau), Gene (Chris Meloni), Victor (Ken Marino), Ben (Bradley Cooper), Susie (Amy Poehler), Neil (Joe Lo Truglio), J.J. (Zak Orth), McKinley (Michael Ian Black), and Gail (Molly Shannon). Physicist Henry (David Hyde Pierce) arrives a couple of episodes in. Lindsay (Elizabeth Banks) is an undercover journalist from a music magazine. Meanwhile, Coop is still played by Michael Showalter, who, with David Wain (starring here as an Israeli counselor, Yaron) created both this series and the 2001 movie.
Besides the familiar faces, there are some new ones including theater consultant Claude Doumet (John Slattery) and mystery assassin, Falcon (Jon Hamm). H. Jon Benjamin reprises his talking Can of Vegetables, but you will also see him as Mitch, beleaguered head of the camp, which is facing a crisis.
This is a prequel to the movie, which was set during the last day of camp in 1981.
MY SAY Filmgoers divided into camps when camp spoof "Wet Hot American Summer" arrived in 2001 -- those who loved this farce and those who did not. Because the former were vastly outnumbered by the latter, "WHAS" was quickly forgotten, until something as strange as the film happened: "Wet Hot" became a cult classic. DVDs were released. Festivals were held. Widespread adoration was dispensed. A streaming service with a vast maw for product then came calling.
To understand the late-blooming appeal -- required for the series, too -- you first need to understand the awkward and mysterious appeal of the source material. Foremost, there's the excellent cast. While most are big stars now, most were relative unknowns back then. Some of those reprising their roles now have Emmys, others are major box office draws.
"The State," MTV's 1993 experimental sketch comedy series, also abounding with pychotropic vibes -- and starring some of the creators and "WHAS" cast members -- is important root stock too. Available on Hulu, that especially offers insight into the warped/funny comic worldview of Showalter and Wain.
Then, there was the nostalgia kick, or as Scott Tobias of the A.V.Club observed at the 10th anniversary mark when cult status was secured, "the whole enterprise is anchored by its obsessive fetishization of the period, " notably the '80s of TV and screen, like "Meatballs."
Enter the series, which embraces all of this and much more. "First Day of Camp" is an elaborate and often funny inside joke. So this then is how that long-ago summer began, eh. And isn't it peculiar that the camp counselors actually appear a little bit older than they did at the end of summer... (Otherwise, they mostly look the same, which is remarkable given that 14 years have passed since the movie -- or maybe it's just a tribute to highly skilled makeup and special-effects artists).
Meanwhile, new cast members like Schwartzman add deftly to the hallucinogenic-comic shimmer. Slattery's preening David Merrick-wannabe -- who, along with Susie, literally whips the camp's theater production into shape -- is hilarious.
"Wet Hot" remains much as it was -- something that works as comedy, but with a few minor adjustments could work as a prequel to "Friday the 13th" too. It's also still an acquired taste, and if you haven't acquired that by now, I can't imagine why on earth this would finally do the trick.
Except possibly for this reason: The series actually improves on the movie. This is consistently funnier, weirder and more inventive. Netflix offered the first four episodes (out of eight) for review. I can hardly wait for the next four to see how the rest of this interesting summer began.
BOTTOM LINE: Funnier/crazier than the movie and with slightly broader appeal.