Wet Hot American Summer, the camp movie spoof that finally gave vegetable cans the onscreen representation they deserve, hardly seemed destined to become a franchise. It made less than $300,000 at the box office in 2001, and the critical response to it was mixed, with reactions ranging from “hilarious” to “cinematic torture.” (One of the tortured? Roger Ebert.)
But here we are, 17 years later, with Wet Hot American Summer so firmly established as a cult classic that it has yielded not just a Netflix series prequel — 2015’s Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp — but a second, Netflix series sequel, Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later, which begins streaming Friday. I’m not sure if that officially makes Wet Hot American Summer a franchise. But, at the very least, it confirms that Team Camp Firewood is capable of finding a seemingly endless supply of sublimely ridiculous comedy in sex-crazed counselors (well, now former counselors), bizarre side plots involving political cover-ups, and, yes, that still unwavering commitment to giving canned goods a voice. (Mitch! The can of vegetables is Mitch! Remember his name!)
Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later is basically eight episodes of unabashed retro-fueled silliness that has no interest in trying to make anything resembling sense as far as of plot or continuity is concerned. In fact, not making sense is one of the show’s trademarks. In the spirit of MTV’s The State – the ’90s sketch-comedy series that starred several of the main Wet Hot players, including creators David Wain and Michael Showalter — Ten Years Later has a strong improvisatory, “let’s just run with this” streak running through it at all times. If you told me some of these episodes were shot a few minutes after the first or second drafts of the scripts were yanked off the printer, I’d say, “I guess that makes sense.” In this case, I mean that as a compliment. Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later is fun precisely because it seems to be flying by the seat of its early-’90s jeans, feeling free to do whatever it wants, any old time.
As implied by that reference to a Soup Dragons song and by the Ten Years Later in the show’s title, the action at Firewood picks up in 1991, exactly a decade after the events depicted in the movie and prequel, as the whole gang of former counselors reconvenes for a weekend-long reunion. When I say the whole gang, I do mean pretty much everyone from the original cast, including Showalter’s Coop, who still carries a torch for Katie (Marguerite Moreau), who, in turn, may finally have some real flames burning for him; Susie (Amy Poehler), now a semi-successful movie producer who dresses like someone who fell directly out of a Madonna video; Lindsay (Elizabeth Banks), a working broadcast journalist hungry for a substantive scoop; Neil (Joe Lo Truglio), who’s still holding on to some personal insecurities, as well as a mullet that can’t be helping matters; Victor (Ken Marino), who’s continuing to grapple with his status as a virgin; Andy (Paul Rudd), who has transformed from regular jackass into jackass who looks exactly like Matt Dillon’s character in Singles; Beth (Janeane Garofalo), who now owns the camp but is contemplating (gasp!) selling it; and McKinley (Michael Ian Black) and Ben, who are now raising an infant daughter together.
Yeah, so, we need to have a word about Ben. In the first two iterations of Wet Hot American Summer, he was played by Bradley Cooper, but due to scheduling conflicts, Cooper couldn’t tackle the role this time. So Adam Scott has taken over the part, an extremely noticeable change considering that the two actors don’t look a lot like alike. But Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later will not be daunted by such matters, which is why the switcheroo is quickly explained in episode one by noting that Ben got an extremely transformative nose job.
A couple of other old camp friends — Claire (Sarah Burns) and Mark (Mark Feuerstein) — show up at the reunion, too, and are really excited to see everyone again! The thing is, they were neither seen nor mentioned in the movie or First Day of Camp, though footage of the two is inserted in some flashbacks to make us think that they were there in 1981 the whole time. Basically, this makes them the Nikki and Paulo of Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later. On one hand, it’s completely absurd to add two more former Firewooders to the mix on a show that already has a full-scale army of returning characters, as well as other newly added ones. (I didn’t even mention yet that Zak Orth, Molly Shannon, A.D. Myles, Marisa Ryan, Christopher Meloni, Chris Pine, Jason Schwartzman, Josh Charles, Kristen Wiig, Lake Bell, and a whole slew of others are along for the ride, including, yes, the voice of H. Jon Benjamin as Mitch.) But cramming Claire and Mark into the story is fully in keeping with the Wet Hot American Summer ethos: that nothing is ever too much or too random to make its way onto the screen.
Normally at this point, I’d try to succinctly summarize the plot — or in this case, plots, very much plural — but let’s just say that it has to do with breakups and new romance, weird threesomes that involve mask-wearing, the long-standing rivalry between Camp Firewood and the snobs at Camp Tigerclaw, and, most crucially, a clear-and-present danger that presents itself thanks to a nefarious plot put in place by former president Ronald Reagan (Showalter in makeup) and President George H.W. Bush (Black, in slightly less makeup).
Honestly, none of that matters, though. What makes Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later so bingeable is the amount of talent that comes together and is clearly so up for anything. You toggle from one episode to the next, curious to see who might pop up unexpectedly (Marlo Thomas? Perhaps!) and what weirdness will transpire next, whether it’s Poehler getting into delicious fights with the new reigning king of the Firewood theater world, played by a wonderfully catty John Early, or Mitch trying to help David Hyde Pierce’s Professor Henry Newman remember how they know each other. (“I’m Beth’s friend. We met in the city that one time. I’m a can of vegetables.”) Because there’s so much going on, certain characters inevitably get short shrift. For example, I was desperate to see more of Rudd doing his irritated Andy routine, arguably the best part of the original movie. But that still didn’t stop me from motoring through the episodes at a happy clip.
Whether it’s intentional or not, there’s also something fascinating about the way that Wet Hot American Summer, as a series, plays with our ideas about nostalgia. The film primarily toyed with the tropes introduced in late-’70s and early-’80s summer-camp movies like Meatballs and Little Darlings, but also took that material to more gleefully depraved places in a way that made the audience feel simultaneously connected to and completely divorced from our memories of that era. First Day of Camp pulled off a different version of the same trick by audaciously and hilariously using the same cast of actors to play their characters in 1981, even though they had clearly aged by 14 years. And in Ten Years Later, perceptions of how people fit into the Firewood story and what’s motivating them are constantly shifting.
Wet Hot American Summer, the entire series, seems to be telling us that it’s possible to go home again, but that when you get there, things may look and feel very different than you remember. At least that’s what I think the message is. That, and that it’s also really freaky to watch a can of vegetables having doggy-style sex in a restroom stall. Mitch Forever!