By now you should have had time to relive the glorious first day of camp at Camp Firewood. If not, beware of spoilers ahead.
Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp brought back to life a world we loved 14 years ago and allowed us to revisit some beloved characters. It’s the prequel we wanted, but was it one we needed? A lot of it worked, some of it didn’t. There was some gold, some crap, and some fat that could have been cut. In this brave new world of second chances for pop culture properties that were long thought to be dead, it makes me wonder: should we always bring back the things we loved?
Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed the series. For the most part, the cast was excellent. The writing saved the show in places where I didn’t care about the plot and the jokes were tight. It knew better than to take itself too seriously. Where it shined most was where it retread familiar ground. The storyline about Xenstar brought the best comedic moments and new characters. Janeane Garofolo was in fine manic form. H. Jon Benjamin was outstanding as usual and was used just as he should be. Chris Meloni, Jon Hamm, and Michael Cera were all great. Other highlights came from David Hyde Pierce’s Henry and Ken Marino’s Victor slipping back into character as if only 14 seconds, instead of years, had passed.
For me, there was plenty that didn’t work. I loved Josh Charles and his three popped collars as Blake and am willing to forgive the middling plot featuring Andy and Katie because it brought Blake into the story. However, Kristen Wiig’s Courtney was completely extraneous and not really that funny. I love David Wain, but the threesome plot with Coop, Yaron, and Donna was also pointless. Inisipid as the “love story” was, Coop would have had enough to do by mentoring camper Kevin to justify his existence in the show without bringing a manipulative girlfriend and a horndog foreigner into it. Similarly, Jonas/Gene had plenty of backstory without being engaged to Gail. And while I love that the song from the original movie got an origin story, the Elizabeth Banks/Chris Pine plot went entirely too far for too little payoff.
What was missing was the absurdity of the original film. The series was goofy, silly, funny, wacky, ridiculous, and zany by turns, but the sheer absurdity of say, the counselors returning from town, jumping out of the truck, and lining up with their foreheads against a building in the background, was not to be found. It had been replaced with sentimentality or perhaps squeezed out in order to fit in more plots and cameos than the story comfortably had room for.
I think this effort might have been more successful as a prequel movie than as a series, but you can understand why they took this route. With creativity in abundance and an anything-goes attitude, Netflix is the current hangout for the cool kids in entertainment. A Netflix series is a lower risk than trying to make, sell, and profit from a feature film with a better chance for success. But no matter what route they took, they were never going to find exactly what we loved about the original; it no longer exists.
The original benefitted from being the kind of project where no one was paying very close attention to what the creators were doing, so they were able to do whatever they wanted. In the case of the prequel, there was a spotlight shone on it in development, and thusly a lot of pressure; to make it bankable, to be worthy of the fans, to be worthy of the time and sacrifices the cast had to make to reunite. And in the effort to recapture what was so special about the original, they missed the mark. Not that they didn’t make something good and not for lack of trying, just because it’s not possible. They were very lucky to be able to reunite the entire cast and creative team, but just because they had all the same people, doesn’t mean they got all the same people. They have all changed, grown, and learned from their careers. They’re not the kids, just screwing around, that they were when they made the original. You can’t catch lightning in a bottle, you can’t go home again, and you can’t do justice to something magical you made by accident when you had no idea what you were doing.
With digital streaming services allowing this kind of outlet for creativity, we can do anything, bring anything back. But to paraphrase Dr. Ian Malcom “Your [entertainers] were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.” Then again, we are left with 4 new hours of pretty hysterical comedy surrounding a beloved cast and setting. Though it doesn’t match up to the quality of the original, its existence doesn’t tarnish that from whence it came.
Should we keep reaching for the impossible and be happy when the efforts are good enough or should we quit trying to go back to a place that is no longer there? Personally, I think it depends on who you’re entrusting this responsibility to. I’d love to hear what all you geeks out there think.