By Jim Sabataso
Sixteen years after its debut, “Wet Hot American Summer” remains one of the best cult comedies ever made. The film — the brainchild of sketch comedy veterans David Wain and Michael Showalter — is a parody of 1980s summer camp films, which sends up the genre with meta, screwball comedy, as it tells the story of the last day of camp at Camp Firewood in rural Maine.
The film also features a rare assemblage of big-name actors before they were known, including Elizabeth Banks, Bradley Cooper, Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler, as well as great comedic actors like Ken Marino, Joe Lo Truglio, H. Jon Benjamin and Michael Ian Black.
In 2015, Wain and Showalter surprised fans by reuniting that cast and many more for an eight-episode prequel series called “Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp” on Netflix. The series, while at times a nostalgic rehash of familiar gags from the film, was largely successful, thanks to a number of hilarious performances and the inclusion of new cast members like Kristen Wiig, Josh Charles, Michaela Watkins, Jon Hamm, Rob Huebel and more.
Now, the gang is back together in a new series, “Wet Hot American Summer: 10 Years Later,” which premiered on Netflix earlier this month. The eight-episode installment picks up on a thread from the film where the teenage junior counselors promised to meet back at camp 10 years hence.
The 1991 setting gives the show a whole new set of reference points and provides a deep well for visual gags. Expect to see lots of neon pants, backward hats, slap bracelets and references to Yasmine Bleeth and Billy Baldwin.
Following the template “First Day of Camp,” “10 Years Later” tells a decompressed story over the course of one weekend. With so many characters, the series has a lot of ground to cover as it struggles to make room for everyone.
Like other franchises that have grown long in the tooth, “10 Years Later” gets mired in its own mythology, which comes at the expense of the comedy. Joke density is lighter here than in previous outings.
President Ronald Reagan returns as the chief protagonist; this time scheming to destroy the camp with a nuclear missile strike. Showalter’s Reagan impression is competent, but feels off. The plot line becomes an absurd detour that doesn’t seem necessary.
The romantic subplot between Coop (Showalter) and Katie (Marguerite Moreau) also feels tired. The awkward, will-they-won’t-they tension, while initially funny, has worn thin. Why spend time with these two when we can be watching Christopher Meloni’s Gene wrestle a can of vegetables in a Winnebago?
However, these criticisms did not spoil my overall enjoyment of the series. Yes, “10 Years Later” is not quite as funny as the original film or even “First Day of Camp,” but it’s still fun spending time in this universe.
It’s also still pretty damn entertaining. A bit of creative retconning of the original film had me laughing out loud in the first few seconds. (If you don’t remember Mark and Claire, don’t worry, you’re not supposed to.) And a bit of creative recasting — Adam Scott replaces Bradley Cooper as Ben — is waived away with the ridiculous explanation of a nose job.
It’s exactly that kind of absurdist humor that elevates the series above the uneven rehash it is perilously close to being. In the crowded world of streaming comedies, “10 Years Later” is unlikely to stand out among the year’s best, but for fans of “Wet Hot American Summer,” it’s a welcome reunion.
CHECK IT OUT
“Wet Hot American Summer: 10 Years Later” is now streaming on Netflix.