The struggle with Wet Hot American Summer is that its audience is, in a way, limited to the series’ reference points. Not only do you need to have seen the original Wet Hot American Summer to really appreciate the series, you also need to understand — or at least have some knowledge of what the original movie was referencing: The gloriously awful early 80’s comedies. While many outside of the generation of most of the series’ actors know the John Hughes’ oeuvre and Say Anything and One Crazy Summer and Risky Business, WHAS is more of a send up of movies like Zapped and Summer School and School Spirit and Meatballs, in addition to an entire decade’s worth of afterschool specials. As parodies go, the target here is a small window of movies from 25-35 years ago, but for the narrow audience familiar with them, it’s impossible not to at least appreciate the attention to detail that David Wain and Michael Showalter put into the film.
It’s not entirely necessary to have to have seen those films to appreciate Netflix’s WHAS, but it is necessary to have seen the original movie, because the biggest joke in the series is how it provides the origin stories for the characters in the film. Yes, it’s funny that 45-year-old actors are playing teenagers in a prequel to a movie in which the same 30-year-old actors were playing teenagers, but the series doesn’t that get much mileage out of the joke because many of the actors — Paul Rudd, Elisabeth Banks, Bradley Cooper — haven’t aged that much (Michael Showalter is, uh, the exception).
That’s not a joke, however, that’s going to carry an entire eight-episode series. The jokes are in the details, in finding out how Mitch ended up as a can of vegetables, how Henry Newman (David Hyde Pierce) came to live next door, or in how the joke that Lindsay (Elizabeth Banks) looks much older than the other teenagers in the original movie pays off.
But there’s also an absurdism combined with parody that doesn’t always land, even with those that understand the reference points. Coop’s (Showalter) storyline with Lake Bell’s Donna and director David Wain’s Yaron, for instance, falls completely flat, even if Lake Bell absolutely nails 80s teen girl parody. Likewise, as phenomenal as Christopher Meloni is, the payoff — finally seeing the Gene, character we love from the original movie — is not really worth six episodes of milquetoast “Jonas,” (which is not to say that the reveal of Gene is not immensely crowd-pleasing).
In fact, the early episodes play so much in the same ballpark as the original movie — hitting upon the same tropes and stereotypes, and doing so less well than the film — that it’s not until the musical is performed in episode six and the government conspiracy truly takes off that WHAS the series finally soars.
But soar, it does. In fact, it’s the new characters — Michael Cera’s Jim Stansel, Jon Hamm’s government assassin, and especially Chris Pine’s burgeoning 70’s-Rock-God turned recluse that breath fantastic new life into the series, because they represent stereotypes from a different genre of bad 80’s films. They’re also very good in their roles, and take to the form with complete abandon (especially Pine, who is the MVP of the series for me).
Once WHAS builds a head of steam, beginning with the “Electro/City” musical (which finally makes excellent use of both Paul Rudd and Bradley Cooper) it doesn’t let up, nailing one callback to the film after another, while brilliantly paying off six episodes of set up. It’s a different brand of comedy, for sure, but the way that the series nests in jokes only to pay them off much later has echoes of Arrested Development. For instance, the fact that the song Eric has been working on for years is “Higher and Higher” — the song from Coop’s training montage in the WHAS film — left me in awe, and for anyone that gets a kick out of Easter Eggs, Wain and Showalter litter them into the series like landmines that may not explode for a few minutes, or hours, or even until you watch the original film again.
But no: Not everyone is going to “get” the series, and that’s OK. But I think of Wet Hot American Summer less as cauliflower and more like an onion. Onions are disgusting by themselves. You need the other ingredients — the context of the movies being parodied, the earlier film, and a guilty appreciation of China Syndrome — to enjoy it, and like an onion, when you peel it back, there are layers for miles. It’s dumb comedy, but there’s a level of genius to its structure and detail, and in the way the actors embrace it, even if not everyone “gets it.”