The Absurdity of Nostalgia in the Visual Comedy of Netflix’s Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp

Curator's Note

The sub-genrification of nostalgia offers a resonant component to contemporary (if not all of) popular culture. On television, retro self-gazing offer a mediated sixth sense of sorts (see CNN’s ongoing decades-focused miniseries The SixtiesThe Seventies, and The Eighties as recent rosy-lensed retrospects). It is part and parcel a component of the medium’s DNA.

Texts like Mad Men and Stranger Things receive accolades as powerful vehicles able to summon nostalgic aesthetic affect upon audiences. I suggest an alternative and subversive nostalgic manifestation plays out in Netflix’s prequel series Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp (2015).

As a televisual sequel to the cult comedy classic Wet Hot American Summer (2001), First Day of Camp lampoons Hollywood’s overused obsession with prequelization and media franchising while succeeding with this very formula. It builds upon the original’s purposively illogical premise: an all-star comedic cast (now fifteen years older) play younger versions of their already intentionally miscast older selves. Notably the main punchline (absurd age distortion) also represents the strongest selling point for marketers. Such a gimmick might seem silly or contrived without writer-creators Michael Showalter and David Wain’s clear case of double nostalgia for their own summer camp experiences and the impossible-to-replicate production happening over a decade prior. 

But it works. Brilliantly. The premise is preposterous and improbable, or as Jon Hamm’s character "The Falcon" explains to Janeane Garofalo’s Beth in episode eight, "Now I don’t have an answer that I feel will satisfy you" but "I completely agree, I think there are a lot of elements to this [narrative] that do not make sense."

Nostalgia, as a sense-making filter, doesn’t make complete sense either. It is, by nature, partial at best. Perhaps this is where First Day of Camp makes more sense as an authentic nostalgic artifact of our televisual present. At its core, writer-creators’ Showalter and Wain articulate absurdity in how we perceive the past, by placing 40-something actors into an elapsed representation of a clearly specific space and place and time that cannot not be marked (visually and comically) by the casts’ aged present.

Stunt casting (using Mad Men alums) further compounds the show’s most overt and clever continuous gag. However, it also points a sly critique at the immaturity necessary to continuously live in, or rather long for, the past.

First Day of Camp may have offered the most glaringly authentic satirical reversal of the pop nostalgia movement…at least until the advent of "member berries". 

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