By Devon Shuman, Senior Staff Writer
Watching “Wet Hot American Summer” is similar to watching a flash mob break out. It’s wacky, it’s random and you’re not exactly sure why it’s happening.
Netflix’s newest original series is a sequel to David Wain’s 2001 cult comedy hit of the same name. The movie, which followed the misadventures of the campers and counselors at Camp Firewood on the last day of summer camp, originally bombed at the box office due to its outlandish and nonsensical style of comedy, the same kind of random humor found in shows like, “Tim and Eric” or “The Eric Andre Show.”
However, the movie eventually found a massive fan base as the cast, almost all of whom were relatively obscure at the time of the film’s release, went on to become big stars. Not only was this Bradley Cooper’s first movie (he missed acting school graduation to film it), but he was joined by Amy Poehler, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Rudd, Molly Shannon and Ken Marino. Ever heard of them?
As the film grew more popular, people started to warm up to its unique sense of humor — the talking can of vegetables who convinces the Vietnam veteran cook to follow his passion and make love to the refrigerator, the one-hour jaunt into town that ends with all the counselors getting hooked on heroin, the art teacher who asks her kindergarten-age students for advice while going through a divorce. Fans were buying into all of it.
Last summer Netflix decided to cash in on the film’s popularity by releasing a prequel series. As the subtitle, “First Day of Camp,” suggests, these eight episodes focus on the first day of the summer in which the movie took place. Impressively enough, they were able to bring back all of the cast members, even though most of them are currently enjoying busy careers. And, in the spirit of the movie’s zany humor, although it has been 14 years since the release of the film, they did nothing to make the cast members appear any younger, so the show features actors in their 30s and 40s playing high school-age camp counselors.
The highlight of the original film was Paul Rudd and he continues to be wonderful the second time around. Rudd plays Andy, the too-cool-for-school counselor who’s known for his lackadaisical attitude and his habit of abandoning campers in the woods if they catch him breaking the rules.
Rudd is a comedic genius and his physical humor is second to none, highlighted by the scene in which the head counselor makes him pick up his dishes and it takes forever for him to reluctantly complete the task. We’re met with the same physical comedy immediately in the show as he makes his entrance by riding in on a motorcycle and jumping off while it is still moving.
While Andy was the funniest movie character, the funniest person in the series is, surprisingly, Christopher Meloni who plays Gene, the crazy Vietnam War veteran chef. In the movie, Gene was mediocre at best — his main shtick being that he would accidentally misspeak in weird ways (e.g. “Can you pass the dick cream? I mean stick cream.”).
In the show, however, he demonstrates a completely new comedic range. His character starts off as just a normal guy. He’s cordial, he dresses nice and he’s engaged. As the show progresses, we see him transform into the crazy cook we know from the movie. As one of the only actors in the show who doesn’t primarily work in comedy, Meloni’s humor is pleasantly unexpected.
As Gene’s backstory shows, the beauty of the prequel is that we get explanations for how things were in the original: we learn the origin of the talking vegetable can, the story behind Gail’s (Molly Shannon) divorce, the beginning of Ben (Bradley Cooper) and McKinley’s (Michael Ian Black) relationship. It’s intriguing to watch all of these storylines play out.
“WHAS” falters at times. The random humor, while mostly hilarious, can sometimes be just plain stupid.
All in all, however, the prequel is solidly done. It retains the same humor, brings back the all-star cast, and even introduces some more big names. Everyone from Michael Cera to Jon Hamm gets in on the fun. As the weather cools down, keep the spirit of summer alive with “Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp.”