Recapping the wackiest breakouts from Netflix’s prequel series to the summer camp classic
Wet Hot American Summer (2001) was a movie before its time: a huge cast of comedians (including Amy Poehler, Paul Rudd and Bradley Cooper) on the brink of their cinematic breaks, and a self-referential, we’re-all-in-on-the-joke absurdist storyline. The film takes place during the last day of summer camp and spoofs the teen sex comedies of the time: think American Pie (1999) and Animal House (1978). Young counselors realise time is ticking for their last sexual encounter of the summer, the talent show approaches and a satellite is falling directly above Camp Firewood.
Since its initial box office failure, it’s been immortalised in Halloween themed parties, midnight viewings and random one-liners that few people actually get. Now it’s back, 14 years later, with the returning cast and an entire season on Netflix acting as a prequel to the cult classic. For fans of the original film and newbies alike, it’s a chance to uncover the origins of the teenage ensemble and how an end product of absurd government intervention and American camp life go hand-in-hand. A warning before you proceed: major spoilers ahead.
EPISODE 1: “CAMPERS ARRIVE”
It’s June 24, 1981, before they all hunker down at Camp Firewood. The counselors have arrived, bad teenage hair wigs et al, for the opening of Camp Firewood. The satirical stock characters of teen movies past populate the porch: the try-hard rebel, the popular girl, the goody-goody, the nerd, where they sit to be filled in by Beth and Mitch, the camp directors. Coop reunites with his ‘girlfriend’ Donna, who he believes are a pretty solid couple given they hooked up once a few months ago. Donna reacts in the most perfect way to his welcome – “Aww…eww”.
Cool guy Andy begins a snickering, fart-joke dense courtship of popular girl Katie, despite the fact her boyfriend is in the rival camp Tigerclaw. There’s a camp musical to produce (shout out to Bradley Cooper and Amy Poehler’s rousing “Floppy Twins” showtune duet) which Ben and Susie are producing, that the ENTIRE SUMMER RIDES ON. Oh, and Beth and fellow camp manager Greg stumble across toxic sludge that's being dumped by a government organization called Xenstar, something that could have deadly consequences on the camp.
BREAKOUT MOMENT: The rich side of the lake, Camp Tigerclaw, and the introduction of Josh Charles to the cast as Blake. The four open polo shirts with the popped collars deserve their own credit. Wondering where Tigerclaw came from? Catch their logo cameo in the original film.
EPISODE 2: “LUNCH”
Whoa, so Lindsay’s true identity has been revealed to us. In the film, she’s just another counselor, but it seems that 24-year-old rock music journalist Lindsay has gone undercover among teens that, by the looks of them, have the life expectancy of about 30. It’s all very Drew Barrymore in Never Been Kissed, but what’s the scoop? Well, she could discover the bet some of the guys have going: lose your virginity at all costs. Or Coop trying super hard to impress girlfriend Donna with the outfit choices she throws at him. More likely, it’s the hermit music legend with unfinished hits hiding in an abandoned cabin that will be her front page splash. Camp whispers abound that lead singer of Rock ’n’ Roll Legends went beserk, faked his own death and hid in a cabin by Firewood with a stack of unfinished songs.
BREAKOUT MOMENT: Abby Bernstein’s entry into puberty – the weird age thing that plagues the teens of WHAS is explained. With the arrival of her period, Abby goes from 14-year-old boy-hating cheerleader chants to a much more mature-looking girl chatting the entire canteen up. Huh.
EPISODE 3: “ACTIVITIES”
In a bizarre twist of fate that isn't that bizarre given the WHAS-world we’re in right now, Mitch, the camp director who allowed the government to drop toxic waste in exchange for funds, has fallen into the chemical pool. Fear not though, he’s been reincarnated as a radioactive can of mixed vegetables (exactly like the talking can of veg in the film who offers tidbits of wisdom), so he and Beth’s relationship just might work out. As a can of veg, he bestows Beth with a quest: take down the government and save the camp. In other news, Coop, with his surfer chic pukka necklace and trussed-up hair, is still desperately trying to impress Donna, who’s lusting after the new Israeli soccer coach.
BREAKOUT MOMENT: Jon Hamm makes his first appearance as President Reagan’s hired assassin – be afraid, Camp Firewood.
EPISODE 4: “AUDITIONS”
With the help of handsy Claude Dumet (John Slattery), who had an actual minor speaking role (“there are no small parts” etc etc) in the camp’s musical production of Electro City, Susie continues to look for new leads in time for its premiere that night. Enter Andy, who’s straying slightly from toilet humour courtship, to steal the lead role from fantastically named theatre kid Logan St Bogan along with Katie’s heart. All the while, her douchebag boyfriend and Tigerclaw rival Blake watches from the rival camp with gold-rimmed binoculars, seething. This episode also sees Kristen Wiig as rich gal Courtney, with some killer Valley Girl one-liners and uncomfortable application of lip balm in an attempt to get Blake’s attention.
BREAKOUT MOMENT: Andy’s original song “Champagne Eyes” – lyrical smut and some serious guitar-slapping that brings tears to our eyes.
EPISODE 5: “DINNER”
A prank call quickly turns from self-parody to potentially lethal as Jonas, aka Gene Jenkinson, the cook who’s secretly ex-military, pursues prank caller Victor with a deadly vendetta, despite the fact he’s marrying the arts and crafts teacher in a matter of minutes. Beth continues to fight against Xenstar and the looming toxic sludge – “the biggest government conspiracy since Watergate” –and seeks the help of lawyer Jim Stansel, played by Michael Cera. If your knowledge of David Wain’s cinematic universe stretches further than WHAS, you’ll totally get how often this name comes up, even in the film when Beth makes up a name of a guy she’s meeting.
BREAKOUT MOMENT: Ben and McKinley’s (Michael Ian Black) erotic moment in the conjoined zoot suit costume for the musical, spelling the demise of the floppy twins and his kind of non-relationship with Susie: sob.
EPISODE 6: “ELECTRO/CITY”
As evening approaches on the first day of camp, Firewood is tense with the various yet equally absurd subplots complicating things. Jonas and Gail’s wedding takes a turn when she elopes with the City Hall clerk (though from the movie we know exactly where this is going). Lindsay upholds her journalistic integrity with a promise that JJ can touch her boob if he goes with her to check out hermit music legend Eric’s (Chris Pine) eerie log cabin, and the lights go up on Electro/City. But can Katie and Andy, the musical leads, succeed with the big lift in the dance sequence finale? They can, among Human League backup dancer lookalikes and a number about the electric chair called “Death Row Boogie”. Their kiss is caught by the residents of Camp Tigerclaw who are having their formal (huzzah!) and Blake declares war. The government meanwhile pursue Plan B to destroy the camp, teens and all.
BREAKOUT MOMENT: Lindsay inspires rock ’n’ roll legend Eric to finish his song, before disappearing off into the night. “My editor warned me not to get too close” – uh oh, too late. The young campers also learn the true rules of ‘dibs’ and how serious you have to take it.
EPISODE 7: “STAFF PARTY”
The bad vibes continue: Lindsay’s in turmoil over filing her article to Rock n' Roll World magazine because she loves the camp, and Victor finds losing his virginity (shhh) to be much harder than he first thought. Cue an awkward trip to the pharmacy for protection, and a condom to the face in a haphazard attempt to slide one on as he tries to make it with an older woman. Coop on the other hand finds himself pressured into the most awkward threesome you’ve ever seen with Donna and the soccer coach. Andy and Katie finally become the perfect item, but fans of the film know how this one works out – no prequel foreshadowing going on here.
BREAKOUT MOMENT: The counselors find out that Lindsay is in fact a 24-year-old rock journalist – the hair gave her away, right?
EPISODE 8: “DAY IS DONE”
Everything is reaching its climax at Camp Firewood, as Beth and Gene fight to save the camp from Xenstar and the weirdly tanned forces of President Regan. This means war as Camp Tigerclaw approach with their racquets and hockey sticks, with Blake leading the pack to start a fight. An excitable Kristen Wiig is ready to attack, trusty oyster fork in hand. As Blake and Andy, Katie’s lovers in conflict, come face to face, it’s all about to go off. Then, reclusive musician Eric emerges in his Almost Famous moment, on top of the roof spouting hippy shit to a bunch of teenagers, and the power of 80s rock ballads brings peace to the camp.
BREAKOUT MOMENT: The entire camp instantly knowing the words to Eric’s rock power ballad tune “Higher and Higher”, and Beth’s ascension to the main camp director and saviour of Firewood, with a little foreshadowing look over her shoulder at the newly arrived professor Henry Newman played by David Hyde Pierce, who was at the time the film’s most profilic star.
Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp is now streaming on Netflix