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“Gotta get back in time,” sang Huey Lewis in a song that postdates the 1981 setting of Wet Hot American Summer by four years. But temporal matters have little meaning in the world of the disaster-prone Maine summer camp Firewood, and David Wain and Michael Showalter have set their frequently hilarious eight-episode follow-up (with a noticeably aged and portlier original cast) two months prior to the events of the gutbusting 2001 comedy.
That’s part of the joke, of course, and at least in the six episodes sent out for review, no character does any meta-acknowledgment of the wibbly wobbly timey wimey narrative contortions beyond repeatedly insisting that they’re sixteen years old. The result often resembles Meatballs by way of Samuel Beckett.
The movie was set during the last day of Camp Firewood’s season, while the series is set entirely on the first day. This allows Wain and Showalter — the latter returning as the hopelessly love-deluded Gerald ‘Coop’ Cooperberg — to fill in some backstories you never knew you needed (where did the H. Jon Benjamin-voiced talking can of vegetables come from?), as well as introduce plenty of new characters to the mix, not all of whom make it out alive.
It’s a tough act to follow the sublimity of the movie, which somehow managed to be profane, ridiculous and pathos-ridden all at once. Wain and Showalter now have four hours to fill instead of an hour-and-a-half (each episode runs a shade under thirty minutes), and the strain occasionally shows. The first installment, which reintroduces all the campers and counselors (Paul Rudd’s unapologetically misogynist horndog Andy gets a terrific entrance), is mostly throat clearing. But things quickly pick up with the start of the second episode, when Elizabeth Banks’ Lindsay, a peripheral character in the film, is revealed to be an undercover rock journalist writing a story for a New York glossy on summer camps. It all makes some perfect kind of (non)sense.
Wain and Showalter have tons of fun retconning the ensemble; their most inspired stroke is making Christopher Meloni’s macho military man-turned-cafeteria cook Gene into a prissy milquetoast who is improbably engaged to neurotic Arts and Crafts instructor Gail von Kleinenstein (Molly Shannon). But they also introduce plenty of giggle-inducing new wrinkles, like a covert assassin named the Falcon (Jon Hamm) who is sent by President Reagan (Showalter) to dispose of several of the counselors. (The scene in which Hamm literally emerges from special guest star “Weird Al” Yankovic is like sitcom David Cronenberg.) And of course there’s a bombastic, Starlight Express-like musical production overseen by theater-obsessed counselors Ben (Bradley Cooper) and Susie (Amy Poehler) and newcomer acting instructor Claude Dumet (John Slattery, embracing the libidinous smarm). It’s also impossible not to snicker when Israeli exchange camper Yaron (Wain) plays “Amazing Grace” on a shofar.
In the movie, all the silliness added up to something transcendent. When Kevin Sussman’s socially inept, frog-voiced Steve effectively performed a blow-’em-out-of-their-seats miracle during the frenetic climax, it felt strangely revelatory — a sneakily generous gesture in a comedy otherwise content to remain an under-the-radar cult item. The series is working under different pretenses: It has a loyal fanbase and more wide-ranging clout, to the point that it can attract performers like Hamm, Slattery, Jason Schwartzman, Kristen Wiig, Michael Cera and Chris Pine while also being forced, to varying degrees, to service the excessively marinated expectations of WHAS devotees. The underdog’s become the cool kid, and that’s a tricky space to navigate.
Wain and Showalter mostly acquit themselves, and for every dud plotline (“Coop’s” romantic flailings are actually more of a drag this time out) there’s a correspondingly uproarious one, like the lengthy pre-credits teaser sequence dedicated to the heinous work life of untenured college professor Henry Newman (David Hyde Pierce). It’s not clear if First Day of Camp will, in toto, achieve the ecstatic heights of its predecessor. Maybe it’s enough that, moment to moment, it makes you laugh.
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