Netflix’s ‘Wet Hot American Summer’ prequel pays tribute to itself

The cast of First Day of Camp, recapturing their youth.

Three stars

Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp Season 1 available on Netflix July 31.

One of the ways Netflix develops original programming is by looking at what its viewers are already watching, and ordering more content just like it. Netflix subscribers watch lots of Adam Sandler films, so the streaming service signed Sandler to a four-movie deal. Episodes of Arrested Development get lots of views, so Netflix commissioned a fourth season. And 2001 cult comedy Wet Hot American Summer is popular among viewers, so Netflix has hired original WHAS creators Michael Showalter and David Wain (they co-wrote and co-produced the movie; Wain directed it) to put together an eight-episode prequel series, Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp.

The thing about WHAS is that the people who love it really, really, really love it, and it’s possible all those Netflix views just came from a small number of people watching the movie over and over again. Those people should love First Day of Camp, which is an entire TV season of fan service, with jokes devoted to every bit of minutiae from the movie. Wain and Showalter managed to corral the entire original cast, including actors who went on to become big stars (Bradley Cooper, Amy Poehler, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Rudd), and the central joke is that actors who were at least a decade too old to be playing teenagers in 2001 are now even older, and playing those same teenagers in a story set a few months earlier.

Both the movie and the series are set at a summer camp in 1981, and while the movie was a pastiche of coming-of-age comedies from that time period, the series is basically just a pastiche of itself. Jokes are built around elaborate backstories for throwaway gags from the movie, which gives First Day of Camp an appealingly absurdist sense of humor, but it’s also often plodding and calculated, working way too hard to justify its convoluted joke setups. With a cast expanded to include tons of popular comedic performers, First Day of Camp is frequently funny, even when its jokes don’t amount to much. Fans of the movie will probably watch it over and over again, making Netflix executives very happy. Everyone else will remain baffled.

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