One of the most hotly-anticipated offerings on Netflix this month is Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, a prequel to 2001’s bizarre cult hit, Wet Hot American Summer. It joins an army of Netflix reboots of absurdist crowd favourites, and the question for many of us was whether this one would hold up while still being accessible to new viewers. After the lacklustre performance of Arrested Development, there was ample evidence that perhaps some sleeping dogs are best allowed to lie.
Surprisingly, that’s not the case with Wet Hot American Summer, which works as original programming on a number of levels that should make it delightful to new viewers as well as a trip down memory lane for old ones. The ensemble cast is outstanding, and they work together now as well as they did then — back when many were just starting their careers and hadn’t become famous and critically acclaimed actors. The addition of a variety of cameos, including some notable names like Jon Hamm, doesn’t disrupt the feel, and actually enhances the connections between the cast members.
This sequel takes viewers all the way back to the first day of camp, laying the groundwork for the 2001 film, in which viewers saw the last day of summer camp and the aftermath of eight weeks living closely together in the crammed and somewhat unreal world of US summer camps in the heady days of the 1980s. For those who went to camp, there appears to be a deep sense of nostalgia, especially in the case of overnight camps — weeks without parents, an odd sense of freedom, moving in a world completely insulated from reality. In camp, anything could — and did — happen, and much like Vegas, it stayed in camp. Organised activities seem like the least important part of camp, in some ways.
The 2001 film was designed to be a nod, mockery, and sendup to the stream of teen films of the era, including, of course, American Pie and its unforgettable ‘This one time, at band camp…’ line. It was also an homage to the very real camp experiences of the 1980s. Wry and sharp, it could be consumed by teen audiences, but in a way it was pitched to young adults, and it was part of the generation of media that rooted itself in incredibly bizarre, Dada-esque framing. A comedy of the absurd, Wet Hot American Summer seemed almost impossible to replicate in an era of more straight-faced, serious comedy — with the exception of programmes like BoJack Horseman.
The decision to use the same cast was an act of sheer unadulterated genius, and it’s one reason the series works so well. In 2001, people in their 20s were playing teenagers, an established practice in Hollywood, but now, people in their 30s and 40s are playing teens, which makes things feel even more surreal. Fans of the original can see clear traces of the actors and characters they remember, while for newcomers, Wet Hot American Summer must have an utterly weightless, unbounded feel — the programme freely and merrily violates the dictates about how far producers can push the envelope when it comes to age and casting, and that’s part of the point. Seeing grownups play teenagers feels strangely right in this setting, partly perhaps because this is very much a programme intended for adults and precocious teens — the goal isn’t realism or an accurate depiction of teen life any more than the 2001 film was.
This may be why Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp works better than Arrested Development. Rather than trying to pick up where the source material left off, it’s reeling back in time, both generating backstory and creating an entirely new narrative. Some of the events of Wet Hot American Summer are explained in the Netflix series, but the new programme creates as many questions as it answers by striking out on its own, using the outstandingly strong cast to make a comedy that isn’t trying to be a precise replica of the original, a sort of sendup of itself.
Former attendees of Jewish summer camps seem to speak with particular nostalgia when it comes to the Wet Hot American Summer franchise, discussing how it rings true to their particular experiences of camp in the 1980s. Now, the face of camp in the US has changed radically, along with many other childhood experiences — in a world where parents can be cited by police officers for letting their children wander around the neighbourhood on their own, camp is a much more tightly controlled place, with children on lockdown, constant documentation, regimented schedules, and a much less freewheeling environment.
The world of Wet Hot American Summer is likely utterly beyond the ken of most teens today with summer camp experience, and in that way, it plays on nostalgia among the older adult crowd as well as capitalising on the sense of longing that many US teens have for what they imagine as a better era. Camp of the 1980s may have been a place where attendees and counselors alike could get away with much more in a more licentious, relaxed environment, but it was also the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis, the Reagan era, a looming financial crisis, a time when life wasn’t all ‘80s movies and hair bands. It’s easy to look back at the media of the era and forget what it was like, or to view the 1980s through the nostalgic lens of programmes like Wet Hot American Summer and forget reality — or, in the case of youth today, to construct an artificial perception of an era they never lived through. For those who endured the 1980s, the programme comes with a sharp, bitter edge — we are all laughing because everything was so terrible, and the sense of innocent nostalgia hides something much deeper and more ugly.