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Television review: ‘Wet Hot American Summer’ is mired in flimsy backstory

Paul Rudd and Marguerite Moreau in Netflix's "Wet Hot American Summer". (Gemma La Manna, Netflix)

Take your typical sitcom, add a dash of intentionally exaggerated acting, nonsensical plot lines, forty-somethings portraying teenagers and a healthy serving of satire, and you have “Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp” (“FDOC”). Created by David Wain and Michael Showalter, Netflix’s latest original series focuses on the relationships of counselors and campers at a summer camp in the 1980s, serving as a prequel to the critical and commercial flop “Wet Hot American Summer” (“WHAS”).

Much of the movie’s main cast (Bradley Cooper, Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks, just to name a few), largely unknown at the time, returns.

Unfortunately, like most reboots, “FDOC” relies a bit too heavily on the storylines and jokes established in the original movie. “Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp” feels a lot more like “Confusing, and, At Best, Mildly Amusing American Summer” for those who are new to the franchise.

The first episode opens with an early morning meeting at Camp Firewood, where we’re introduced to all of the camp administrators and junior staff members as they wait for the campers to arrive: Mitch (H. Jon Benjamin) is the camp director, while Greg (Jason Schwartzman), and Beth (Janeane Garofalo) are head counselors. There’s Coop (Michael Showalter), who claims to be dating the popular Donna (Lake Bell) and there’s Andy (Paul Rudd), who arrives late on a motorcycle and immediately begins hitting on Katie (Marguerite Moreau), who is dating Blake (Josh Charles), a snobby counselor at Firewood’s rival Camp Tigerclaw. There’s also a myriad of other characters, all of whom are funny and have their own plot lines, but remain largely unmemorable.

Once the campers arrive, more hackneyed relationships are thrown into the mix, like nice guy Kevin (David Bloom), who is bullied by Drew (Thomas Barbusca) and likes pretty girl Amy (Halley Sole). And, let’s not forget Ben (Bradley Cooper) and Susie (Amy Poehler), the theatre counselors and directors of the staff musical Electro-city.

As the episodes wear on, Coop is thrown into what looks like a possible menage-à-trois with Donna and Yaron (David Wain), a soccer counselor from Israel, Katie and Andy play “will-they-won’t-they,” Mitch turns into a can of vegetables, Elizabeth Banks shows up as Lindsey, a 24-year-old undercover reporter who poses as a teenage camp counselor, and, naturally, Beth and Greg must stop the government from destroying Camp Firewood — because, why not?

For Wain and Showalter, the creators of the series, “FDOC” is an opportunity to present a backstory for every single element from “Wet Hot American Summer” while giving the movie’s fans some new material (i.e. Jon Hamm as Falcon, a government-hired assassin). The season essentially functions as a four-hour movie that is broken up into eight thirty-minute episodes. With no clear structure, each episode bounces back and forth between the countless storylines. While each plot line is well-developed, this choppy and frenetic intercutting is fairly confusing.

It also doesn’t help that for those who haven’t watched “WHAS,” many of the “FDOC” jokes don’t make a lot of sense. Watching Mitch get turned into a can of vegetables seems irrelevant  — until you watch “WHAS,” and realize that Mitch’s reincarnation is a reference to a single 20-second scene from the movie.

Yet, even after watching the movie, there were times when I still wasn’t sure which parts were supposed to be funny. “FDOC” employs a very particular brand of humor that relies mostly on dialogue and situations so absurd you can’t help but chuckle. This works in a few scenes but largely falls flat, leaving most confused and unsatisfied.

Fortunately, there is plenty of humor to be found in watching a parade of A-list celebrities appear in unexpected, if not unnecessary, roles. Chris Pine is a reclusive rock genius while Michael Cera plays Johnny Piss Pot, an incompetent lawyer. Even Randall Park makes a brief appearance! (For fans of “The Good Wife,” be sure to catch episode three if only to see Josh Charles, aka Will Gardner, say “burnt bread” in a Southern accent).

Among these high-profile performers, the most effective (i.e. Elizabeth Banks, Lake Bell, Paul Rudd, Josh Charles, Michael Cera) go for broke. Take Paul Rudd, for example, a man whose overacting damn near carries the show. After Andy’s first tries (and fails) to woo Katie in the first episode, he spends an absurdly overlong 20 seconds awkwardly snickering (read: looking like an irritated horse) and doing “the cool guy shrug” to a fellow counselor. It’s clear that Rudd is poking fun at stereotypical bad boys and jocks, and each time he’s on-screen the laughs are all but guaranteed.

With that being said, “FDOC” also boasts a handful of more understated — and unsuccessful — performances including those of Michael Showalter, Bradley Cooper, H. Jon Benjamin, Amy Poehler and others (Molly Shannon, David Bloom, Chris Pine, David Wain) of that ilk. Whenever Showalter’s Coop is around Donna, he turns into the shy kid who doesn’t know how to act around his crush. Showalter genuinely tries to exaggerate Coop’s ineptitude, blabbing on and on about how much he missed her during the year but as odd as it sounds, his overacting doesn’t look, well, authentic. In a lot of the episodes, Showalter (and a load of his cohorts) stay in this weird limbo between acting well and overacting, which, frankly put, doesn’t come across as inspiring, funny or anything of interest.

Overall, “FDOC” is another reboot that exists solely for the purpose of bringing the cast and fans back together to laugh at the same jokes that weren’t exactly funny 15 years ago. If you’re an ardent fan of “Wet Hot American Summer,” this show likely won’t disappoint. If not, Netflix offers a plethora of other ways to waste four hours.

Contact Mimi Zambetti at 16mtranzambetti ‘at’ castilleja.org.

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