Craig Clayton is the writer and producer of several award-winning short films including, Karkass Karts, A Mail Tale: The Untrolled Story, and Mastodon. When not writing for film he Co-edits and contributes to ‘Dear Show,’ a blog dedicated to television criticism.
Dear “Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp,”
It’s been a long time. I won’t lie, I’ve missed you, and when I learned that I would be seeing you again, I was excited, I was expectant, I was nervous. When I last saw you, you were a shoe-string budget indie flick, made with the reckless abandon of youngsters trying to prove something to themselves and the world. Now you would be returning as a highly anticipated television show with Netflix money on your side. If I’m being completely honest, I wasn’t sure the spark would still be there.
You had the cast going for you. I think it says something pretty special about your directors, Michael Showalter and David Wain that, fifteen years later, the entire star-studded cast was game to come back to camp and work on such a goofy project. I suppose when you gave so many of them their big break, the loyalty is strong. And it’s a good thing because, without the return of the entire cast, you just wouldn’t have worked. The new faces are excellent. I particularly enjoy Jason Schwartzman’s turn as a toxic-sludge-guzzling administrative assistant, John Slattery as Claude Dumet, Amy Poehler’s theatrical mentor, and Chris Pine, Michael Cera, Jon Hamm, and Jordan Peele are welcome additions. But your real energy comes from the new storylines for old favorites.
And you are smart about it. A lot of the fun comes from the fact that almost all of your characters start out in the opposite position as their characters in the movie. Christopher Maloni’s Gene, who was a personal favorite of mine in the movie as the PTSD-suffering, refrigerator-humping cook, starts off this time as a sweater-vest-clad, clean-shaven, blond-haired, Mike Brady type, going by a different name (Jonas). And what’s more, he’s about to get married to Molly Shannon’s hopeful and starry-eyed Gail who, in the movie, was an emotional wreck due to her recent divorce from Judah Friedlander’s Ron, who this time around is working for the Reagan administration. The relationship between Bradly Cooper’s Ben and Michael Ian Black’s McKinley, which in the movie is already heavy with passion, is only in its infancy, with Ben only now discovering his sexuality (great job with the zoot suit number, by the way. It’s the perfect combo of hilariously absurd and sweet). Paul Rudd’s Andy, who in the movie has Marguerite Moreau’s Katie wrapped around his finger, is doing his damndest to win her affections. And what a great revelation that Elizabeth Bank’s Lindsay, who in the movie was such a stereotypical camp floozy, is a reporter, pulling a Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Or Marissa Ryan’s Abby, making the transition into womanhood. The cold open of David Hyde Pierce’s Henry Newman spiraling out of control on his search for tenure is some of your best work. The one place where this reversal doesn’t really work, is with Michael Showalter’s depiction of Cooper.
With the other characters, you put them in new circumstances, but they still feel like the same people. Michael Showalter is the only one who seems to be playing a totally different character. Obviously, Showalter’s youthful lankiness has given way to an older man’s girth, changing his physicality drastically, but that fits with your biggest gag: everyone is supposed to be playing sixteen year olds. That was funny in the movie, but now it’s just down right hilarious. The problem is that, in the movie, Cooper was a nice guy who was a bit naive, but now you’ve turned him into a spaced-out man-child. Before, sure, he was goofy, but he had an edge to him. He said that he was open to “doing it with sluts,” it just depended on the slut. He was drinking beer and shooting up heroin with the gang when they went into town, and he was shouting “let’s go” at the campers as if they were cattle in need of herding. But now, you have him choking down cigarettes as though he’s never seen one before in his life, kissing his girlfriend, Donna with the timidity of a five-year-old reciting the alphabet for the first time, and having heart to heart conversations with a bullied camper. I get it that single days in your universe can see massive changes, it’s one of your longest-running jokes. And maybe Cooper just changes a lot between now and the end of the summer, which is when the movie takes place. But if so, he’s the only one who will undergo something so drastic.
I suppose I also have to mention Camp Tigerclaw because, save for one pretty hilarious scene where the waspy, multiple-polo-shirt-wearing snoots sit around tearing money into tiny shreds, that whole plot line seems like a forced nod to a vague reference in the film. Watching rich kids stare through binoculars gets old right after seeing it the first time, so keeping that same scene going over eight episodes nears agonizing redundancy. Thank God Kristen Wiig is there to add a little spice to things. Otherwise, even the climax to that plot line, the battle between the two camps, is a little too predictable. You could have pulled it off if you had given me some Anchor Man fight-scene-level carnage, but instead, you barely got me chuckling when a frisbee is able to knock a counselor off his feet.
You know what it is? Honestly, the spark has dimmed a little. You’re still absurd and over the top, but there just isn’t the same “what the fuck?” kind of energy to that absurdity anymore. The logic builds almost too well. Sure, this time around, you have Ronald Reagan rolling up in a missile-equipped jeep to blow up the camp, but that moment is built up to with the whole toxic sludge story line. It’s not like in the movie where, all of a sudden, there was a piece of a space station hurdling toward camp and the science nerds steered it out of the way with a contraption made of tin foil and donuts. Sure, the bullied camper can guess every line of Cooper’s emotional pep talk, but it’s not like in the movie, where Cooper fell into a random kiddy pool, or where Ken Marino’s Victor drove down the road, casually singing Kenny Loggins, only to suddenly smash into a tree that wasn’t remotely in his way. I don’t want to be one of THOSE people, constantly whining about the movie, especially since you were able to bring me “Electro-City,” which I would pay serious dough to see, but it’s at least worth mentioning. At times, I felt a little bit like Coop, reuniting with his summer love, only to find that she has become a different person.
It’s really not fair of me to treat you as anything other than the first season of a television show and, in that regard, you did remarkably well. Well enough for me to hope for a second season (and if the rumors are true and the cast is down to return again, it might actually happen). In that event, I hope you will allow yourself to give in to the wackier sides of your sense of humor. After all, that is what made you great in the first place.