Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp
Much has been made of Netflix’s ability to use algorithms to produce content that will appeal to its large user base. Should our faith in all things advanced math go out the window with “Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp”? By my calculations, what we have is a formula that goes nowhere based on the hope that campy kitsch can rekindle our fondest memories.
It’s clear that Netflix was attempting to make a franchise out of a 2001 indie film that may or may not be a cult classic. I tend to side with the late Roger Ebert, noted film critic, who skewered the film, offering his review as an updated version of the song “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah.” Ebert’s comment, “Life’s too short for cinematic torture,” said it all.
What Ebert could not have foreseen is that the bulk of the stars in the film, which grossed less than $300k as of late 2011, would turn out to be marquee Oscar and Emmy names such as Bradley Cooper, Amy Poehler, Paul Rudd, Christopher Meloni, Janeane Garofalo, Elizabeth Banks and Tony-winner David Hyde Pierce. So Netflix, in its wisdom, brought the star-studded band back together in hopes they could recapture the missing magic of their 2001 film, and reach an entirely new group of young’uns who fondly recall their days of summer camp.
The good news is that the eight half-hour episodes are just as good as the earlier film. But that’s also the bad news. I take that back — the Netflix series is worse because it lacks the interesting backstory of the film (shot in the pouring rain on a miniscule budget) and is far more derivative of the classic 1979 camp film, “Meatballs” which was Bill Murray’s breakthrough project. Dressing a group of folks in their 40s to resemble teenagers can only go so far before they look like Carrey and Daniels from the “Dumb and Dumber” series.
Many of the plots from the 2001 film continue in the webseries. We have the awkward romance between Andy (played with utter nonchalance by Paul Rudd) and Katie (veteran TV and film actress Marguerite Moreau); the burned out Vietnam vet (Christopher Meloni), who prepares to marry arts and crafts teacher Molly Shannon; and the troubled camp owner Mitch (played with some over-the-top gusto by voice actor H Jon Benjamin), who turns to drastic measures to save the financially troubled property. Tossed into the acting pot for good measure is the creative team behind the film and webseries — the always-annoying Michael Ian Black, Michael Showalter and David Wain. Wain, as an Israeli camp counselor/soccer coach, has a few humorous moments, but Black and Wain need to stay below the line.
Aside from questioning why Netflix would bother with such a lame effort, it’s worth wondering whether this was a one-shot dose of attempting summer fun, or if the streaming giant will attempt to turn this into a long-running franchise. What is equally bewildering is how one day at camp — filled with bad food, bathroom mishaps and toxic waste — can last so long. By the same reasoning, we must wonder what was behind the selection of “Jane,” by Jefferson Starship as the theme song for the film and series. Sounds like the makings of a great bar bet.