By the time a member of the Camp Firewood staff is reincarnated as a can of mixed vegetables, it becomes more than clear that Netflix’s Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp is more disorienting and bizarre than genuinely funny. David Wain and Michael Showalter’s eight-part series serves as a prequel of sorts to their cult comedy Wet Hot American Summer, and like that film, it plays out like an epic improv set based on the stereotypical atmosphere and daily routines of sleep-away summer camps circa 1981. The humor is largely deployed in an ambling, conversational tone, one that allows for the uniformly skilled cast to experiment with their respective deliveries and studied movements. More times than not, however, these exchanges come off as merely amusing or intermittently clever, only marginally remarkable for the oddness and spontaneity of the performers’ words and physicalities.
In other words, this is an awfully tame brand of comedy, halfheartedly picking at the absurdities and inaccuracies of film and television depictions of sexual relationships, friendships, dating, management, and mentoring, while at the same time highlighting the bumbling realisms of male-female social interactions. The overall plot hinges on the looming financial ruin of Camp Firewood, one that’s led the camp’s owner and director (H. Jon Benjamin) to make a deal with a toxic waste company, but the myriad of storylines primarily focus on the minutia of summer work, and the sweetness, thrill, and awkwardness of young love: Andy (Paul Rudd) is trying to romance Katie (Marquerite Moreau), who’s having some trouble with her current yuppie boyfriend (Josh Charles); Susie and Ben (Amy Poehler and Bradley Cooper) are producing a staging of Electro City, with help from pompous bit player Claude Dumet (John Slattery), who has a thing for Susie; young camper Kevin (David Bloom) is having his first rumblings of summer romance with Amy (Hailey Sole), while his counselor, Alan (Showalter), is having trouble with his girlfriend, Donna (Lake Bell). All these storylines remain purposefully simple and vague to give the comedians more freedom to let their gags run in odd, unexpected directions, but the jokes quickly grow repetitive and innocuous.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t a few jokes or behavioral bits of comedy that land nicely throughout. Schwartzman breathes new life into a familiar gag when he taste-tests the toxic waste, and Elizabeth Banks, as an undercover journalist pretending to be a 16-year-old, gets a handful of excellent reaction shots that help underline the absurdity of casting full-grown adults as teenagers. Indeed, the most humorous element of the entire conceit is the fact that the thirty- and fortysomethings that make up the cast are playing teenagers, with Charles also clearly taking great pleasure in highlighting the disparity in ages. Like the film that spurred the series, First Day of Camp is consistently amiable, but never touches on anything especially intimate or personally revealing, either about its creators or the business, experience, and interpersonal development that occur at these kinds of camps. Rather, the series ultimately feels like a nostalgia trip, less for the era in which it’s set than for the original film that spawned it.