Netflix’s usage metrics remain shrouded in mystery, but one needn’t be a genius to see what attracted the streaming service to “Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp,” an improbable and wholly silly prequel to a 2001 movie most notable for all the people in it who went on to bigger and better things. Victory here was delivered before production began just based on who the producers got to return or, impressively, join in the festivities, to the point where it’s almost easier to rattle off who isn’t involved than provide a comprehensive list of who is.
In terms of garnering attention, pretty much everything after that is sheer gravy. The conceit of doing a “prequel” 14 years later to a production that already featured adults playing teenagers is, of course, the big joke. But director David Wain and writer-star Michael Showalter go one better by actually going back and filling in backstory to the original movie, which really should be watched right before diving into these episodes in order to appreciate their giddy devotion to that process.
The movie itself, despite the “cult classic” label, isn’t exactly memorable beyond its who’s who cast. And if this works, Netflix should seriously consider revisiting some other titles that were more notable in that regard — just off the top of one’s head, something like “The Outsiders: Before the Rumble” and “Streets of Fire: The First Tour.”
In addition to Showalter, original players reprising their roles include Paul Rudd, Amy Poehler, Bradley Cooper, Elizabeth Banks, Janeane Garofalo, Michael Ian Black, Nina Hellman, Joe LoTruglio, Ken Marino, Christopher Meloni, Marguerite Moreau, Zak Orth, David Hyde Pierce, Marisa Ryan and Molly Shannon. And while the new additions shouldn’t be spoiled, suffice it to say that Josh Charles is put to particularly hilarious use as an upper-crust preppie at a nearby camp, while several members of the “Mad Men” gang apparently chose to celebrate the end of their time in the 1960s by taking a brief sojourn to 1981, when the movie and this eight-episode series is set.
The plot is almost completely beside the point, but the producers seek to putty in how several relationships that existed in the original got started, treating their low-budget comedy (one suspects the craft-services bill this time around trumped the entire prototype) as if it were one of the “Star Wars” prequels. That includes, but is not limited to, a camp-opening stage production, an undercover reporter masquerading as a teen, a trial that goes from interviewing an attorney to courtroom summations in a matter of hours, and a government conspiracy involving toxic waste. As a bonus, that last element allows Showalter to double as Ronald Reagan.
For Netflix, which derives at least part of its programming formula from showcasing talent that has a good track record of subscribers streaming their work (hence its movie deal with Adam Sandler), just assembling this assortment of stars should yield marketing dividends. That “Wet Hot American Summer” actually delivers some laughs is, frankly, a bonus, but certainly a welcome one.
Nothing happens in a vacuum, and this spinoff arrives amid a wave of TV reboots, many of them rooted in a kind of odd ’80s and ’90s nostalgia. For those whose similarly themed projects are still on the launchpad, they could do worse than to take a look at Showalter and Wain’s road map in devising their quirky trip back to the future.