It seemed improbable that Wet Hot American Summer – one of the great cult comedies of the 21st century – would return at all 14 years after it debuted. That First Day of Camp, the Netflix miniseries from the original creators and cast (with a few new additions), would turn out to be so brilliant seemed almost impossible. Yet there it was, two years ago, with the same warmth and silliness of the original film. What could have been a series of cheap callbacks to a weird, beloved movie instead grew the wacky mythology of Wet Hot and carved out a space alongside the best Netflix has to offer. It felt like a one-in-a-million shot, but David Wain, Michael Showalter and company pulled it off.
Now, somehow, they’ve done it again. Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later is, improbably, another return to form for a franchise that wasn’t ever supposed to come back in the first place.
First Day of Camp worked, in part, because its premise – actors who played teens when they were in their 20s coming back to play teens in their 30s and 40s – was wonderfully goofy and perfectly in keeping with the Wet Hot spirit. What put the prequel series over the top, though, was the idea that the world of Camp Firewood was much bigger and stranger than the original film could show us. Co-creators Wain and Showalter took full advantage of the idea that we had only ever seen these campers for a single day. The brief chronology of the first film, coupled with a tendency toward weird side jokes, provided instant potential for expansion. First Day of Camp doesn’t just return to the Wet Hot world, it deepens our understanding of the Wet Hot universe. The Wet Hottiverse, if you will.
Ten Years Later takes that same sense of possibility and dials it up even more. Built on the promise the campers made in the original film to reunite in a decade, the series again takes place (mostly) over the course of a single day. It’s 1991, and our beloved campers are in their mid-20s (which the cast, now mostly in their early 40s, milks for plenty of laughs). Coop (Showalter) is trying to find an ending for his memoir and eager to see if Camp Firewood has answers. Katie (Marguerite Moreau) is a successful magazine executive nervous about seeing Coop again. McKinley (Michael Ian Black) and Ben (Adam Scott, subbing in for Bradley Cooper) are a happy couple with a new baby. Victor (Ken Marino) is still a virgin and still horribly overcompensating for it. Lindsay (Elizabeth Banks, separate from the rest of the cast for much of the run) is a TV reporter eager for her first big story. Susie (Amy Poehler) has turned her love for theater into a filmmaking career. And Andy (Paul Rudd), sporting a fantastic new Grunge look, is…well, he’s still Andy.
The series is naturally packed with subplots and weird ongoing gags. If there’s a spine to it, though, it’s Beth (Janeane Garofalo) being forced to sell Camp Firewood as the classic sleepaway camp model is dying out. The campers, naturally, begin concocting a plan to save the camp from apparently sinister buyers. Naturally, they discover a massive conspiracy involving underground bunkers, crooked politicians, and one very big McGuffin. The rest is better left unspoiled.
Just as First Day of Camp could have coasted on “Hey, remember this movie you like?” jokes, Ten Years Later could have gotten by with nothing but “Hey, it’s the ‘90s!” gags. Indeed, there are plenty of those, from throwaway lines (a reference to Slacker as a movie that just came out) to repeated references (B. Dalton Booksellers gets a surprising number of shout-outs). More importantly, though, the new decade gives the creators plenty of opportunities for a whole new host of pop culture references woven into the fabric of the story. J.J. (Zak Orth) becomes a hybrid of Clerks and Reality Bites, filming everything with a camcorder and sporting omnipresent flannel. The “save the camp” plot feels like it just stepped out of a DeLorean. And then there’s a psycho stalker subplot that lends a classic Lifetime movie vibe. Each time, these jokes – however brief or expansive – sport the same attention to detail that made the original Wet Hot such a perfect satirical work. These aren’t lazy gags. They’re made with love.
There’s a bigger joke at work in Ten Years Later too, one that runs the length of the series. The creators are well aware that they’re making a sequel to a prequel in the age of constant nostalgia revivals. So, tongue firmly in cheek, they tell a story about a group of people having a hard time moving on. Katie can’t stop revisiting Coop. Lindsay can’t let go of Camp Firewood’s theater. Andy refuses to give up his Camp King glory days. Collectively, no one will accept the loss of the camp. It’s a theme that builds and builds, through all the subplots and twists and just plain bonkers developments. Ultimately, it culminates hilariously and sweetly in what could very well be a perfect conclusion to the Wet Hot trilogy.
Nostalgia is built into the DNA of Wet Hot American Summer. It’s the reason the first film and its send-up of Meatballs-style sex comedies worked and the reason fan demand brought about First Day of Camp. Now, the franchise is consciously playing the very idea of its return yet again for laughs and heart. Our campers spend eight episodes mulling over their time at Camp Firewood, what it’s meant and what it will mean. There’s a palpable sense of “How the hell did we get here?” hanging over the piece. Each character, in the end, reaches his or her own conclusions. For the viewer, the answer to why and how Wet Hot had such an improbably great run isn’t important.
We should just be grateful we got to go back to camp one more time.
Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later premieres Friday on Netflix.