It would have been impossible to imagine anyone willing to finance another Wet Hot American Summer after the original movie limped onto the big screen in October 2001. In its widest release, Wet Hot American Summer played in 12 theaters, grossing a meager $295,000. The critics who bothered to review the movie mostly hated it. Roger Ebert was so bored by Wet Hot American Summer that he wrote his one-star pan as an elaborate parody of the novelty song "Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh." ("I want to escape, oh mudduh faddah — life's too short for cinematic torture," read one characteristic couplet.)
This is not the foundation on which a successful TV series can be built — or rather, it didn't used to be. The arc of the average cult hit tends to be the same: Over a number of years, a huge, embarrassing flop gradually amasses a devoted following through word-of-mouth. Wet Hot fulfilled that arc many years ago, and there were actually several failed attempts to continue the story. (A sanitized, episodic Fox sitcom and a 115-page film continuation.) But all those false starts turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because Netflix — uncensored, and unconstrained by conventional problems like advertisers and strict episode lengths — is clearly the ideal home for First Day of Camp, a Wet Hot prequel.
How did First Day of Camp become a can't-miss proposition for a streaming giant like Netflix? When a new TV landscape transformed a "cult hit" into the closest thing you can find to a guaranteed hit. Netflix makes good shows and bad shows, but it doesn't make mistakes. If the company greenlights a series, you can safely assume there's cold, number-crunched logic behind it.
In the huge, insanely competitive world of streaming, the safest way to stay ahead of competitors like Hulu and Amazon is to fall back on raw data. Netflix has long relied on the information it culls from its users to cherry-pick its original projects; when it was just getting into the original content game, the company outbid HBO, Showtime, and others for House of Cards because its algorithm showed subscribers were predisposed toward David Fincher, Kevin Spacey, and political thrillers.
Netflix doesn't release viewership data, so we'll never know how many people are actually watching these shows — but you can look at the roster of Netflix originals and read it like a cup full of tea leaves. BoJack Horseman aims at the same demographic that uses Netflix to stream adult-oriented animated comedies like Family Guy and Bob's Burgers. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt plays directly to the people who use Netflix to binge on 30 Rock. The upcoming Aziz Ansari series Master of None was undoubtedly greenlit, in part, on the performances of Parks & Recreation and Ansari's standup specials. Even Netflix's weirder detours — like the upcoming revivals of Full House or the children's cartoon Popples — are fairly easy to crack; give parents a long-dormant brand name they recognize, and they'll put it on for their bored kids on some lazy Saturday afternoon.
I wasn't in the room when Netflix greenlit Wet Hot American Summer, but I can imagine how the conversation went. I'll bet it started with the staggering roster of proven talent who were eager to appear in the series: alumni from the original (Paul Rudd, Amy Poehler, Bradley Cooper) and a slew of new faces who fit right in (Jason Schwartzman, Kristen Wiig, Jon Hamm).
From there, Netflix looked at what I assume were consistent and impressive streaming numbers for the original movie, which is perfect for the Netflix model: a funny, endlessly rewatchable comedy, with a cult following that's large and passionate enough to push it to their friends. (Full disclosure: I'm responsible for at least a half-dozen of those viewings.) Indeed, this offbeat prequel to a box-office flop must have been one of Netflix's easier calls. As Wet Hot American Summer creator David Wain said, the series "went from zero to 100 in 10 seconds" once it landed at the company's doorstep.
And now, nearly 15 years after the original arrived, an eight-episode prequel series is here. Like Arrested Development, it's clear that these incredibly in-demand actors didn't actually have much time to film together — Bradley Cooper reportedly shot all his scenes in a single day — but unlike Netflix's revival of Arrested Development, the seams are pretty much invisible, since the original movie was so choppy and episodic anyway. With everybody who created the original movie back for First Day of Camp, the original's goofy magic was basically guaranteed to come back intact — an asset, again, that undoubtedly figured into Netflix's exacting calculations.
So: How is Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, anyway? I loved it. Of course I did. I'm in the target demographic.