Spoilers ahead for Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later.
Before the movie Wet Hot American Summer came along, it was rare to see a can of mixed vegetables in a major role in a motion picture. But Mitch – known simply in that 2001 movie as “Can of Vegetables” — changed that forever.
Actually, that’s not true. It’s still pretty rare to see cans of vegetables getting cast in movies or TV shows. But let’s keep this focused on Mitch, a true pioneer in a field of one. When he made his debut in Wet Hot American Summer, I must admit that I was not initially won over by his work. In a comedy meant to pay absurdist homage to ’70s and ’80s summer-camp classics, I stood pretty firmly on the “I Was Not Expecting to See Talking Canned Goods in This and I Really Don’t Know How to Feel About It” side of the issue. I mean, in Meatballs, did Bill Murray pause during his “It just doesn’t matter” speech to exchange a few words with some Campbell’s tomato soup or a Dole fruit cup? No. No, he did not.
So when the lid of that can of Pozinsky’s Quality Mixed Vegetables started flapping and spewing advice to Gene (Christopher Meloni), the camp cook suffering from Vietnam War–related PTSD, I thought, you know, this might be a comedy bridge too far. But then I watched Wet Hot American Summer again, and then again, and the more time I spent with that can, the more became convinced that he was the most genius part of the whole film. Well, besides Paul Rudd, obviously. That can is so outlandish, so obviously inspired by whatever the hell Michael Showalter and David Wain were smoking when they wrote the screenplay, that you have to admire him. Plus, he’s so wise: “If you wanna smear mud on your ass, smear mud on your ass,” he told Gene. “Just be honest about it.” How is this not the title of a TED Talk?
But in all seriousness — fine, partial seriousness — what’s actually brilliant about Mitch as he’s continued to evolve in the Netflix Wet Hot American Summer follow-ups, First Day of Camp and Ten Years Later, is not only that he keeps getting more admirable, but that he represents two of the fundamental tenets of the bonkers Wet Hot American Summer sensibility. First tenet: If a joke has been taken too far, take it even further. Second tenet: If a character has been introduced that seems a little absurd, give that character a backstory so much more absurd that it threatens to rupture the space-time continuum.
In Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, the so-called “Can of Vegetables” is not only even more central to the plot, we find out that he’s actually the former director of Camp Firewood, an inspiring man named Mitch (H. Jon Benjamin, also, obviously, the voice of the can), who, for reasons that defy scientific reason, transforms into that can of vegetables after falling into a pool of toxic waste that, honestly, didn’t seem like it was that deep? Like, couldn’t Beth (Janeane Garofalo) and Greg (Jason Schwartzman) have done something to pull Mitch out of there and save him?
Thank the Camp Firewood totem pole they couldn’t, because if they had, we wouldn’t have been treated to the first-ever onscreen romance between a woman (Garofalo) and a potentially toxic can of vegetables, nor would we have witnessed the kind of Emmy-worthy can-acting that takes place in the touching scene in which Mitch gives Beth permission to let go of their relationship so she can immediately develop a crush on David Hyde Pierce’s Henry in keeping with the timeline of the movie. (Hey, isn’t it amazing how, if you go back and watch the original Wet Hot, there is literally no indication that the can of vegetables is actually Mitch even though his devastating dip into toxic sludge had happened only a few days earlier? Again, I say: genius.)
In Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later — and by the way, spoilers ahead — Mitch takes things up yet another notch by becoming an action hero and, for part of an episode, the star of a road-trip movie. While he lacks the fundamental qualities that protagonists in those kinds of stories tend to have in abundance — muscles, eyes, arms, legs, really a whole body that isn’t just an aluminum can — Mitch does amazing things. He jumps off a cliff à la Harrison Ford in The Fugitive. He hitchhikes, despite his lack of thumbs. He has amazing sex with a waitress in a diner, despite the fact that in Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp he told Beth he would never be able to satisfy her sexually. But most importantly, through his recruitment efforts, moxie, ability to strategize under pressure, and his NASA connections — and again, spoiler alert here — he saves Camp Firewood from a serious nuclear threat … that turned out to not even be a real threat, I guess. But whatever. He did it!
And in the final shot of the series — perhaps the final Wet Hot American Summer scene ever — we realize that Mitch, in human form, lives on, with Beth by his side. Is that the real ending? Who’s to say? As Coop asks in the scene just prior to the ending: Which story do you want to hear?
Personally, I want to hear the story where Mitch lives and — for reasons that are not explained on even the most basic level — regains his human form. I want to experience the story of a man who learns what it means to become a can of vegetables who can do all kinds of crazy shit, and then somehow becomes a man again. America needs heroes right now. It needs not just any can of mixed vegetables that used to be a camp director, but a quality can of mixed vegetables that used to be a camp director. In Mitch, for a few shining, logic-defying moments, we found him.