The cast of Wet Hot American Summer: First Day At Camp probably has an average age of 43. What better age to play a camp counselor?
Netflix's rise as a streaming-video powerhouse has been so meteoric, it's easy to forget that the company only began pushing its own in-house content a little over two years ago. House of Cards enjoyed its Netflix debut in February 2013, and the service has since flourished with enough critically acclaimed dramas to make it nearly feel like an entrenched American media company.
But it's not--and http://scottygotanofficejob.com a primary reason is because it has fumbled on the flipside of the television content equation. Namely, Netflix's original comedies haven't been as universally beloved. The company racked up countless headlines by landing the golden goose that was Arrested Development, but that series' awkward, green-screen-fueled return didn't come close to living up to expectations. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt aside, the rest of the service's major comedies have ranged from serviceable network-TV rejects (Bojack Horseman) to bland flops (Bad Samaritans, Grace and Frankie)--subjective opinions, yes, but those series certainly haven't gained nearly as much traction as the likes of Orange Is The New Black.
That's why Friday's launch of the eight-episode series Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp is a pretty big deal for Netflix. For starters, it's good--really, it's hilarious--but it also sees Netflix making a valuable detour that may very well define its future as a comedy outlet. The rest of Netflix's comedies have had one unfortunate thing in common: a desperation to pull off "safe," network-standards-compatible sitcom content. Considering that Netflix doesn't have to bow to advertisers' concerns over language and content, that commonality is surprising and, frankly, holding back its series' potential.
You only need to watch a few minutes of WHAS to see Netflix kiss that aspiration goodbye. The show is set up as a prequel to the 2001 film of the same name, which starred a number of actors and comedians whose careers have since exploded (Elizabeth Banks, Amy Poehler, Paul Rudd, and Bradley Cooper, to name a few). That cult classic film saw its 20- and 30-something actors fake like teen camp counselors (a fact that fueled many of its jokes), and this follow-up series doubles down on the silly premise by having the same actors, 14 years later, pretend they are now a few months younger.
While the show doesn't take a paid-cable dive into breasts or violence, it succeeds largely because it fires on all vulgar dialogue cylinders--in short, because this show's characters sound just like bad teens at a summer camp. The humor rises above mere fart and boner jokes, too, because it also sees characters pushing each other's puberty-obsessed buttons, all while sending up the same bad late '70s and early '80s movie clichés that the original film did so well. (I enjoyed preview access to the new episodic series, and I can't find ways to describe what I saw without spoiling its most clever jokes, but the out-of-nowhere start of the second episode alone, and how it played on the assumptions of the 2001 film, cemented this series as a comedic classic in my eyes.)
It's not that the characters say or do anything that clearly breaks any "seven words you can't say on television" rules, but rather that they constantly push boundaries that you'd never expect to see on a standard network TV series. You can thank series creators (and members of sketch comedy troupe The State) David Wain and Michael Showalter for that--and a big part of their boundary-pushing success comes from years of Web-video expertise.
In the early 2000s, they, along with fellow State member Michael Ian Black, began publishing video snippets from a new comedy project known as Stella, and the results, which included cameos from soon-to-be famous comedians like Zach Galifianakis, were some of the most edgy, insane comedy the Internet had seen at that time. (Stella newbies can start with this bonkers, NSFW Christmas caroling skit; it only gets darker and weirder from there.) Wain followed that with two other series that debuted online: his own navel-gazing Wainy Days, and the comedian-loaded insanity of Children's Hospital. The latter turned out so well that Adult Swim picked it up as a full series. (Fellow State cast member Ken Marino had similar success with the whackadoodle, online-only Bachelor parody series Burning Love; that show began on Yahoo and is now archived at Hulu.)
These series all came about precisely because of what these comedians realized after the 2001 theatrical release of Wet Hot American Summer--a commercial and critical flop that eventually found a crazed, devoted fanbase. The comedy wasn't the problem, they realized; the distribution was, especially when it came to boundary-pushing comedy that typical networks were afraid might offend. As such, they found more nimble ways to get their bizarre wares to their devoted target audience, well before YouTube comedy distribution became the norm. Other great modern comedy troupes went on to use YouTube to great effect in the service's earliest days, from Donald Glover's Derrick Comedy to The Whitest Kids U'Know.
Should the new WHAS series prove a success--not just in the eyes of biased comedy geeks but among a growing TV-streaming audience--then the tide may very well change in terms of what comedic content online networks chase down the line. Imitating shows like Friends and Seinfeld--or buying their re-airing rights outright--seems like a very past-tense move on streaming services' part. Netflix's dive into an early '80s summer camp, on the other hand, feels like a real step toward streaming comedy's future.