WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER: FIRST DAY OF CAMP Review – A Concept Stretched Too Far…

wethotThe original, Wet Hot American Summer, is one of my favorite movies ever. In my opinion, it’s one of the most perfect comedies ever made, because it knows exactly what it is. It’s simplistic, shallow, superficial, and, most importantly, straight forward, and I say all that as a compliment. Those terms are usually used to deride something, but, in this case, I think it’s a positive. Another way to say it would be that they had a clear plan and executed it.

In the hands of less talented folks, WHAS is a segment on a sketch show. At the core of the concept: adults play teenagers, tropes of summer camp movies are lampooned, and the entirety of the summer camp experience is represented in a single day. The concept is so paper thin how could it possibly be anything more? It’s a fair question, honestly, but what makes it work is the large ensemble cast, as it allows the film to jump from character archetype to character archetype, from trope to trope, and it never needs to enrich or deepen any of them. Like I inferred, it keeps moving, and never really gives you time to think about any of the people or tropes that it’s presenting, and it really shouldn’t.

Going back to the sketch show thing, the reason that sketches are only 5-10 minutes long is that the concept can’t sustain anything longer. Whether it’s just an absurdest take on a simple life truth, or a sociopolitical statement, once you’ve made the joke there’s nothing left to do.  By their very nature “jokes” are finite, they’re quick jabs, ostensibly. You can string them together to go in for a “combo,” and make a larger point, but you don’t have to. Jokes aren’t funny because they are representative of a larger thing or point, they’re funny because they speak to something we immediately recognize and understand. Whether we agree with what’s being said or not is completely irrelevant, honestly. Yeah, some people go to media, comedy or otherwise, for validation, which is kind of dubious at best, but it’s not necessary to laugh, or to understand why something is funny.

Long story short(I know you’re skimming this, sucka!), the beauty of WHAS is it’s simplicity, and it’s understanding of how to take a sketch style concept and make it work in a feature length context by having a large assortment of characters to constantly shift to, keeping a breakneck pace, and a relatively short running time. We good? Good.

Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp is 4 hours long, and, given everything I’ve said thus far, that’s it’s greatest weakness. This is an example of what happens when you try to change the fundamentals of something, when you misunderstand what you’ve done… Okay, that’s not an entirely fair statement, and is incredibly presumptuous on my part, but, in my defense, that’s the way it seems, and feels.

Everyone from the original cast makes an appearance on the mini-series, some have a larger presence than others, and some have way more interesting and entertaining sub-plots. In concept, having the whole cast back is an exciting opportunity, but the reality of the situation may be too complex.

A lot of the cast have had their “star” rise quite a bit in the ensuing 14 years, so it’s only natural that it would be difficult to get all of these people together in one place, at one time to do something. After a few episodes I began to realize that hardly any of the cast, superstar or otherwise, were very rarely ever on screen at the same time. Even when they were sharing scenes together. Beyond the fact that it’s incredibly distracting, it actually negatively effects the pacing of jokes and the scenes themselves. Nothing dynamic happens, and it leaves the whole thing feeling unnatural, in a way. You can’t artificially create chemistry in an editing room. Pacing? Maybe, cutting out awkward pauses and what not, but the strength of this cast was that they elevated one another, and their comedy, through actual interaction. The strength lied with the ensemble being an ensemble, basically.

It’s very similar to another Netflix sponsored comeback show, Arrested Development. I don’t know if I’m in the minority on this, but I thought that the fourth season wasn’t great, and a lot of that had to do with the sequestering of the cast. The greatest strength of the original incarnation of the series was the chemistry that existed between the cast members, how well they played off of one another. So when you separate them, you take away what made it all work in the first place, what made it such a special comedy concoction. The sum is greater than the parts, would be a much more concise and simple way to put it.

They could have cut out huge swatches of sub-plots and almost nothing would have been effected. Actually, I’ll take it even further, you could cut out any of the sub-plots, and it wouldn’t make a huge amount of difference. The only real arc, that effects the “story,” is a musical that’s being put on, where most of the characters come together at the end, and even then… They try to tie everything together at the end, but none of it feels like it really matters. It’s almost as if they thought it was more important just to have everyone come back, rather than give them anything interesting to do.

They could have gotten away with it if this had been a tightly constructed movie. I may sound like I’m beating a dead lion here, but the length really kills this thing. It could have worked, I suppose, but it feels so beholden to the original, in terms of structure, that everything ends up over staying it’s welcome, in a way. Everything starts becoming really redundant by the end, as the same jokes are told over and over again. I was shocked at how bored I was. This scenario, and these characters can’t sustain 4 hours, because they were never designed to in the first place. By not really revamping the entire concept, from the ground up, the shallowness of the conceit and the characters is laid bare, and doesn’t come out looking good on the other side.

Even the characters themselves often don’t feel connected to their past incarnations. Honestly, they might as well be entirely new characters for the most part, the exceptions being Joe Lo Truglio and Ken Marino. Out of all the actors, they were the only ones that felt like the characters that I know and love. Most of the returning characters feel entirely arbitrary, and left me wishing that they had just focused on the actors that could comeback to do a series with their full commitment, instead of trying to cater to the schedules of the busier stars. It just leaves everything feeling disjointed, and, like I said before, distracting.

Having said all that, it’s not entirely a waste of time. These are entertaining people, and you’ll definitely laugh here and there. There’s some clever stuff  in the series, but most of the bigger laughs are incidental in nature, and would have you chuckling whatever the context was, rather than being predicated on the main conceit.

The few times that I laughed at jokes that were hinged on the concept were more “meta” in nature. For instance, Bradley Cooper was only available to film for one day, so at some point they have him put on a ski mask, that he lifts up every once in awhile in extreme close up. It’s a self-aware gag, which makes it weirder when they didn’t address is when other characters cross paths in a similar fashion.

You know, I may have enjoyed the whole thing more if I hadn’t binged the show, but being on Netflix, that’s just kind of the way it goes, I suppose. If my viewing of the limited series had been spread out over 8 weeks, I might not have picked up on the awkward pacing and redundant jokes.

If you haven’t watched the series yet, I’d say check your expectations. I really wish this had just been a really good 90 minute flick. There’s some good stuff in here, but at 4 hours, and it’s binge-able release platform, the whole thing suffers. I’ve always kind of thought that David Wain and Michael Showalter were a tad bit overrated, and this series does nothing to challenge that assertion.

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