Laughs Come And Go, But The Characters Shine On Netflix’s ‘Wet Hot American …

31 Jul 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Wet Hot American Summer’ on Netflix — ready your high tolerance for profane comedy.

Camp is the place to be when the weather heats up, but let’s be honest: It could do with a little bit of Netflix. As soon as Jefferson Starship’s “Jane” starts playing, you can’t help but imagine cracking open a beer, sitting around a campfire and embarking on a summer of shenanigans.There is one thing that Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, the new prequel series to the cult classic movie that Netflix started streaming on Friday, has that its predecessor never did: anticipation.Were you to imagine a follow-up to “Wet Hot American Summer,” David Wain and Michael Showalter’s 2001 absurdist parody of an 1980s summer camp movie, it likely would not be as a prequel in which all the members of the main cast, now 14 years older, return to play their old characters in a story set two months before original film. When WHAS arrived in theaters in 2001 the only really recognizable cast members were David Hyde Pierce – who was starring in Frasier at the time – and the alumni from MTV’s too-short-lived sketch comedy program The State.

Exactly what happened to Gene between the first and last days of camp during the summer of ‘81—and what happened to the rest of Camp Firewood’s horny staff—is the prequel’s subject (as if a pretense were even needed to reunite such a star-studded cast). Christopher Meloni, who reprises the role of Gene after a 12-year stint playing detective Elliot Stabler on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, is one of a dozen-plus returning cast members whose stars have risen in the 14 years since the movie. But it has crept to cult status since its initial release, helped along by the growing fame of its cast and a growing taste for its brand of rude, extravagant, tangential-to-reality humor. We’ve rounded up the ideal staff of TV characters to inspire (and occasionally intimidate) you all session long, so put a battery in that head lamp, stock up on bug spray, and write your name on the tag of every t-shirt in your trunk. As the old showbiz saying “everything old is new again” begins to cannibalize itself—reboots, remakes, and reimaginations of old TV shows and movies have become so common they’re no longer creatively adventurous, but a tired trend—nostalgia-mandated resurrections of pop culture mainstays have begun to reliably trade rampant fan excitement for woeful disappointment.

Originally a parody of summer-camp movies and teen comedies of the ‘70s and ‘80s, the film thrived on its inane humor and absurd jokes — like Chris Meloni’s Gene mumbling about humping the kitchen refrigerator, or the counselors randomly ditching camp to shoot up heroin. There are the shows that fans’ enthusiasm brought back from the dead, like Arrested Development, that failed miserably at re-conjuring the magic of the original outing.

The comedy was certainly not for everyone’s taste, but it’s hard to turn down a chance to watch a group of comedy actors exercise free reign over a youth camp, and even harder to deny watching them do it again 14 years later. There are cult staples like Veronica Mars that fans were so insistent come back for another go-round that they even invested in its revival on Kickstarter—literally putting their money where their mouths are—but then still ignored the movie when it hit theaters. They have been joined by the nothing-to-sneeze-at likes of Jon Hamm, Jason Schwartzman, Chris Pine, Lake Bell, Kristen Wiig, Michael Cera, John Slattery, Jordan Peele, Josh Charles, Michaela Watkins, Randall Park, Paul Scheer and Wain. (That’s not counting anyone else who might arrive in the two episodes I’ve yet to see.) This is the comedy generation that shows up to the party; one senses that success may be incidental to their fun. We see Ben and Suzie (Cooper and Poehler) planning a musical to start off the camp season and assessing their relationship, head counselor Beth (Janeane Garofalo) having an affair with the camp owner, Andy (Rudd) trying to score with Katie (Marguerite Moreau) and striking out royally, and mild-mannered chef Gene (Christopher Meloni) excited to marry arts and crafts maven Gail (Molly Shannon).

Then there are family-friendly classics like Boy Meets World and the upcoming Full House that are brought back to life by the adults that fondly remember watching while kids, but who then criticize the revival’s content for not aging with them. For eight half-hour episodes — the first six of which were provided to press in advance — we watch Poehler, Cooper, Rudd, Janeane Garofalo, Marguerite Moreau, Elizabeth Banks, Molly Shannon and more play younger versions of themselves. Of course anyone who remembers the original movie knows that Ben is gay, Beth ends up with a physicist (Hyde Pierce), Andy is cheating on Katie and Gene is a psycho with PTSD from ’Nam. For example, Coop (Showalter) is still in desperate pursuit of a girl, this time played by Lake Bell, in a plot that quickly turns monotonous and should end after one episode. The camp’s overarching crisis — a conspiracy fueled by the U.S. government — is too silly and off-kilter, even for Showalter and Wain, to garner laughs.

The talking can of vegetables was completely surreal in the movie, and it is completely surreal in show too, except now we know just how that can of vegetables got a voice in the first place. Though it takes place later, you would do well to first watch the film (which is available on Netflix as well), which provides the set-up for some of the series’ jokes.

Whether it’s this new crop or the original counselors, there is a bit of delirium in seeing these stars, now in their 40s, playing characters that are teenagers—and not even attempting to pull the wool over our eyes. The series is an orgy of origin stories, in which characters are comically recontextualized, to use a six-syllable word; but as an actual prelude to the movie, it’s a long gag about prequels. It’s also wilder and more wide-ranging than the movie, bringing in a government conspiracy, Charleston-dancing upper-crust campers from across the lake and a legendary missing rock singer, all somehow forgotten by the end of the summer. What I appreciate about reading [Michael] Showalter and David Wain’s stuff is I can never guess where it’s coming from or where it’s going to go.

Like the film, the show disregards continuity and basic sense of reason (like Kevin Sussman’s Steve hacking into the government with one click on an ’80s-era computer). The biggest change story-wise is that Coop (co-writer Michael Showalter) has a new love interest, Donna (newcomer Lake Bell), who sends signals so mixed they could cause a train collision. Even though the prequel suffers from forgettable plotlines, it’s watching the actors embrace their Camp Firewood aliases once again, as well as the characters’ interactions, that makes “First Day of Camp” worth the four-hour visit.

Not only were the likes of Poehler, Cooper, or Banks not box office draws at this point, but their mere presence in a film didn’t carry with them, as it does now, bonus points with critics—cutting some slack for bad material because of their movie star likability. We get to see Ben (Cooper) and McKinley (Michael Ian Black) fall in love pre-tool-shed sex, Susie (Poehler) scream at more children for her musical production (all of which is cast, rehearsed and performed in one day), and Victor (Ken Marino) and Neil (Joe Lo Truglio) up to no good once again. There are also several stories featuring the pint-sized campers that will make you chuckle, even if they are the most conventional part of this camp movie. I think I feel the same type of pressure as maybe a curator of a World Heritage Site might feel to keep the authenticity or integrity of, say, some classic building. There is no way that anyone in the cast, some well into their 40s, can get away with playing teens, so the wigs, costumes and makeup they wear make everyone look older rather than younger, playing up the disconnect.

Switching gears to a slightly more dramatic role, in The Diary of a Teenage Girl, you play Pascal, the former stepfather to Minnie (Bel Powley), and arguably the only responsible adult looking out for her and her sister. Jon Hamm also shows up for a showdown with Gene, guest starring as “President Reagan’s Hired Assassin,” The Falcon. (Anything is worth watching to witness Hamm play a character with that name.) Beyond Hamm, the series also hosts a handful of perfectly cast cameos, from Kristen Wiig as a horny counselor at the preppy version of Camp Firewood next door, Josh Charles and Rich Sommer as douchey jocks, John Slattery as a dignified theater director, “Weird Al” Yankovic as a magician, Chris Pine as a reclusive rock ‘n’ roll genius, Jordan Peele as a newspaper editor and Michaela Watkins as a hip-thrusting choreographer. Also, it’s ridiculous to think that a whole musical can be staged in an afternoon, but the passage of time only adds to the absurdity of the concept.

Or Zoolander?) The film was as much a coming-of-age comedy in a canon of films about summer camp as it was a spoof of both genres, and there was something sort of refreshing and pleasing about the slapdash nature of it all: the go-big-or-go-home spirit of throwing various comedy bits at the wall to see which ones would stick. If anything, Netflix reviving a cult classic like “Wet Hot” is proof that pop culture’s revival craze has more potential for giving under-appreciated films and series a second life. But if you look at a show like Transparent, which could feel like a six-hour movie if you watched all the episodes at once, there is still an episodic structure to each half-hour block, with a beginning, middle and an end, and common themes among the characters that trace through every episode. Would Bradley Cooper and Michael Ian Black’s gay sex scene be as legendary as it is now had Cooper not graduated to become a “serious” actor with three Oscar nominations?

A storyline ends in one episode, and is picked up in the next one right where it left off with our attention shifting from one group of characters to the next. The idea of sexuality doesn’t scare me, but when it becomes scary is when you assume children are mature enough to figure it out on their own without any structure or guidance. All of the arcs are throughout the whole series – will they perform the musical, will Andy get Katie, etc – rather than progressing through a series of beats in 30-minute chunks.

It’s the fact that these actors—who would go on to become Oscar nominees, some of SNL’s most influential cast members, star in blockbusters, and appear on countless magazine covers—could all reunite for a TV series and there be no other expectation than for it to be juvenile fun. What would have been really spectacular would have been finding a way to use the way Netflix creates and distributes shows and letting the format play into the function of the show. That’s probably why a guest cast that is arguably even more famous than the bold-faced names that appeared in the original gladly signed on to make cameos in the Netflix reboot. In 2001, there was the excitement of comedy’s most promising talents relishing the opportunity to be set loose and turn a summer camp into their own comedy playground.

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