‘Wet Hot American Summer’ returns for its second season on Netflix, and while there are plenty of laughs, there are more misses than ever before.
It’s one of those odd modern programming miracles that Wet Hot American Summer, a movie that made under $300,000 at the domestic box office in 2001, built enough of a cult following to spawn the Netflix prequel series Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp. And then it’s in some ways equally remarkable that just two years later, without the rocket fuel of a decade’s nostalgia, creators David Wain and Michael Showalter were able to get much of the gang back together for another eight-episode Netflix season.
Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later isn’t an example of going to the well once too often, but it definitely exhibits a fatigue that the first two installments didn’t have. The movie and first Netflix season were hit-or-miss, because what spoof this side of Airplane! isn’t hit-or-miss, but the ratio of hits was so high that laughter covered over any weak patches. With Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later, there are definitely barren stretches and the overall thinness of the narrative is, especially toward the end of the eight episodes, a part of the story itself. Being the worst of the Wet Hot American Summer entries is no disgrace and there’s enough lunacy, inspiration and cleverness here that Ten Years Later at least makes for a fast binge.
The season begins on Aug. 18, 1981, as the junior counselors of Camp Firewood make a vow.
“Let’s all promise that in 10 years from today, we’ll meet again and we’ll see what kind of people we blossomed into,” Bradley Cooper’s Ben says.
The joke, it turns out, is that by the time Aug. 17, 1991, has rolled around and the counselors are getting ready to reunite, the kind of person Cooper has blossomed into is a movie star too busy to return for another season.
Basically everybody else is back, including Coop (Michael Showalter), Katie (Marguerite Moreau), J.J. (Zak Orth), Susie (Amy Poehler), Victor (Ken Marino), Neil (Joe Lo Truglio), Beth (Janeane Garofalo), Abby (Marisa Ryan), Andy (Paul Rudd), Donna (Lake Bell), Yaron (David Wain) and many more.
Like Friends From College only actually funny, Ten Years Later is about the triumphs and regrets that come with the passage of time and the unbreakable bonds you have with the people you were close to in your youth. Some have found love, some have found professional success and the only important thing is that Victor hasn’t gotten laid and still doesn’t quite understand how sex works.
It’s also about a complicated web of geopolitical intrigue that involves Ronald Reagan (Showalter), George Bush (Black) and many more opportunities for innovative action scenes involving Can of Vegetables (the voice of H. Jon Benjamin).
The first two Wet Hot American Summer installments have blended together in my mind such that I don’t remember exactly which characters are Netflix-only, and when it comes to this installment’s newbies, the only requirement is that they have a comic energy that seems to fit with the ensemble. In that respect, Mark Feuerstein and Sarah Burns are both fine, but I doubt they’re going to become anybody’s new favorite characters. Alyssa Milano is probably the standout of the new characters, playing an overly enthusiastic nanny in a storyline that apes The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. Jai Courtney, putting on an exaggerated British accent, is also amusing, especially if you’ve been disappointed by Courtney in action-hero mode.
The new characters mostly function like hot glue in an arts and crafts project, holding together pieces that are much more frayed than last time. Almost every member of the cast has other things that they’re doing, and while this isn’t quite as extreme as the Arrested Development season in which none of the Bluths spent any time together, it’s close. Because this is Wet Hot American Summer and playing with genre conventions is what Wain and Showalter love to do, they have moments of fun with the cast. One character, played by an actor who’s a regular on another TV show, gets to his Camp Firewood cabin, remembers all the great naps he had in his bunk and promptly wraps himself in a blanket and is only a swaddled PA-shaped lump for a couple of episodes. Or another character, mid-conversation, gets abruptly called away, tells her partner they’ll talk at lunch and he replies, “Yes. Episode four.”
But it isn’t always that clever. Elizabeth Banks’ Lindsay has become a news reporter, so she’s off in a storyline on her own for most of the season. She returns for the story’s climax, which a couple of key characters miss because they’re still at the end-of-summer dance. Can of Vegetables goes off on his own mission and rounds up two or three of my favorite characters and whenever he’s absent, my notes start saying, “But where is Can of Vegetables?!?” which isn’t something that happens with most shows.
I wouldn’t say it’s a breakout season for any particular character. If you laughed at somebody before, you’ll still laugh. Give me a couple of seconds of Wain and Bell speaking Hebrew and I’m set for a while. No amount of Christopher Meloni’s Gene will ever be enough, but I’ll take what I can get. Poehler having a drama geek showdown with John Early’s Logan makes for at least one great scene. Rudd impersonating Matt Dillon in Singles is a reference I can get behind.
After two seasons of riffing on summer-camp comedy tropes, ’80s kitsch and the silliness of actors in their 30s and then 40s playing teens, the time jump is fertile for the writing team and especially for Wain, who directed all eight episodes. It’s a world of horrible fashion choices, embarrassing hair, background parody songs in a variety of styles and tossed-off references, like when a character calls themselves a slacker and a friend agrees “like that movie that just came out five weeks ago.” Even when reunion movies like The Big Chill or St. Elmo’s Fire offer some opportunities for new chuckles, you can tell Wain is still more amused by camp silliness, but that’s mostly going on with a new cast of kids who play sports and practice drama only sometimes perplexed by the old guys looking to recapture past glories in the cabin next door.
In a season that’s about The Spirit of Camp Firewood — the former campers who have lost it, the current campers who might lose it if Beth is forced to sell — what’s missing more than anything is the group spirit that comes from the interplay of this ensemble of ridiculously talented improvisers. But maybe it’s all setting up a Wet Hot American Summer: Reunion in however many years it takes for these actors to be available as a collective again. Whatever flaws Ten Years Later has, I’m not soured on this world.
Cast: Michael Showalter, Marguerite Moreau, Zak Orth, Amy Poehler, Ken Marino, Joe Lo Truglio, Janeane Garofalo, Marisa Ryan, Paul Rudd, Lake Bell, David Wain
Creators: David Wain and Michael Showalter
Premieres: Friday (Netflix)