When Netflix announced that it was resurrecting Wet Hot American Summer as an eight-episode season of television, fans of the movie had plenty of reasons to be wary. Reboots always face a complicated mix of eager enthusiasm and unrealistic expectations. And the last time Netflix revived a beloved cult comedy, we ended up with the disappointment that was Arrested Development season four: an ungainly reunion that kept its stars sequestered from each other and slowed the show’s rapid-fire jokes down to a crawl. And I liked that season more than most people did.
But Wet Hot has an advantage: The movie, released in summer 2001 to middling reviews (Roger Ebert called it “cinematic torture”) was always a goof. It was never, like Arrested Development, an elaborately constructed Rube Goldberg machine, seeded with plots and jokes that took years to pay off. With its roots in the world of sketch comedy, the prequel to Wet Hot has only one job: to be immediately funny. Luckily, the unwieldily-titled Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp is hilarious, a collection of silly gags that do more than just rely on our nostalgia and goodwill for the characters.
David Wain and Michael Showalter, the movie’s writers and directors, managed to bring together the entire original cast, even though some have catapulted to super-stardom in the fourteen-year interim. For actors like Paul Rudd and Bradley Cooper, who are now headlining superhero movies and courting Oscars, it’s a chance to be goofy and relaxed. Perhaps because there is no possibility of winning an award—and therefore less pressure—Cooper has more chemistry with Michael Ian Black, who played his lover McKinley in the first Wet Hot, than he’s had with any of his costars since. Their tentative flirting is more erotically charged than any of his onscreen dalliances with Jennifer Lawrence have been.
Wet Hot was set on the last day of camp, and the sequel absurdly takes place two months earlier, at the beginning of summer 1981. And so we get origin stories for all the memorable characters: how alpha jerk Andy (Rudd, who hasn’t aged a day) started dating Katie (an equally ageless Marguerite Moreau). What a crazed, refrigerator-humping Vietnam vet (Christopher Meloni) is doing as a camp chef. Even the talking can of beans has a convincing backstory. But Wain and Showalter do little to hide that one of the show’s reasons for existence is to allow the cast to hang out again, along with some other famous friends they have invited to tag along. (Hey there, Jon Hamm!) First Day of Camp exists mainly because it can, and the pleasure of its languid zaniness suggests that’s reason enough.
There’s an entire brand of comedy right now built on a similar ethos: the TV show as casual improv group. There is Children’s Hospital on Adult Swim, The Spoils of Babylon on IFC, and that weird Lifetime movie that Kristen Wiig and Will Ferrell starred in last month. Right now, on Comedy Central’s Another Period, you can watch Christina Hendricks play a manipulative maid in a Downton Abbey parody, along with Natasha Leggero, Michael Ian Black, and David Wain. Not all of these are brilliant; no one is gunning for an Emmy. Even as the plot veers into government conspiracies, nuclear waste, and murderous assassins, the stakes in Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp could not possibly be lower. That helps the half-hour episodes succeed on their own terms: as a slightly baggy but consistently delightful collection of bizarre humor, uproarious physical comedy, and outrageous performances.