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Religion. Politics. Wet Hot American Summer. Lines along the sand; the death knells of friendships, love affairs, and family ties. And the forging of new ones, in bonds more sacred than the touch of bloodied palms. David Wain’s 2001 comedy flick is a true expression of cult; a critical and commercial failure rejuvenated by the dedication of the passionate few. A daily spreading mystique: because for every detractor it may attract, there’s always a convert, one whose undying devotion to such absurd parody of teen sex comedies has become a kind of self-identifier. For as NPR host Jesse Thorn so rightly states: “If someone’s heart is open to Wet Hot American Summer…we’ve got an unbreakable bond.”
14 years of devotion deserves its prizes, yet it’s rare for such an undeniably niche fan base to be so richly rewarded. 14 years and it’s now Netflix chooses to rechristen the gates of Camp Firewood for an eight episode series. Now, when its cast have gone on to become Marvel heroes and Oscar nominees. Yet each collaborator here returns to set as if the cameras had never stopped rolling, proving First Day of Camp to be both a treasure to its fans and a wonder to the uninitiated.
A triumph, really, considering the ‘return to…’ premise has always been such a comedic wasteland, scattered with the fallen, all nauseating catchphrases and misfired subversions. It’s sort of joyous, in a way, that Wet Hot American Summer’s prequel series can so easily maintain the freshness of its original outing. As fresh, one might say, as one of those Subway foot-longs you hear so much about. Not that this review is sponsored by Subway. Though we’re open to offers. Of free sandwiches. Offers of free sandwiches.
That said, it was always a possibility that First Day of Camp would be blessed with a kind of immunity from exhaustion. Writing partners Wain and Michael Showalter have crafted a style near impossible to replicate, a sense of the parodic pushed to its most absurd extremes. A place where the traditional, good-humoured jibes and slapstick japery of the Naked Gun era meets the meta-surrealism and puerile sensibility of modern trends. Yes, Wet Hot American Summer was entirely indulgent, but indulgent both for its audience and for its players. It’s a film that rewarded those who embraced the concept of comedy as play to its fullest extent.
These Ideals are all still thankfully as relevant to First Day of Camp, a return to form that feels fondly familiar without attempting to trade too heavily on cheap nostalgia. Jokes are certainly recycled, but with a shrewder look to resetting stakes and re-familiarising audiences with the world at hand. Take Lindsay’s (Elizabeth Banks) introduction: with a fistful of burger and a face smeared with BBQ sauce, it takes one shot for a perfect re-acquaintance to her entire nature, and the fact she probably still tastes like burger. Elsewhere, throwbacks break fast and loose: the original’s motorbike chase and impassable (tiny) bale of hay now becomes a thrilling on-foot chase and an ankle-height tree branch. It’s the same rules, but an entirely different game.
And never do Wain and Showalter lose that essential spark of joy. Pure, overflowing joy: of its unabashed silliness, yes, but also of those idle summer days of our youths. Those gleeful, old-school knockabouts remain (now with added Ronald Reagan), along with that sense of textured detail. (You may not even hear the far-off cry of: “Girl, girls, girls. Save that for the bedroom!”) But, most importantly, the laughs still take pause to allow the camp kids to, well, just be kids. Wet Hot American Summer’s big, dopey Labrador heart was always such a part of what made it infinitely endearing and seeing it so perfectly recreated here makes First Day of Camp all the more worthy of praise.
Things have changed. There’s no denying it. Actors have aged; having already been around 10 years too long to be playing 16 year-olds, the joke now becomes all the more ridiculously sublime. The episodic nature of television also brings its own difference and potential, whether in elaborating a character’s past – finally, to know where the hell that talking can of vegetables came from – or expanding its parodic reaches to courtroom dramas or class-conflict romances. Yet, when that first scene so wistfully recreates its predecessor’s own opening, it’s so easy to slip back into comfort. The same feeling you get when it’s Christmas and you sit underneath the tree that marks every passing year. Because sometimes everything changes, and nothing does.
All eight episodes of Wet Hot American Summer: First Day at Camp will be released on Netflix UK on Friday 31st July.