If you’re reading this, it’s not outlandish to assume you’re already familiar with the Wet Hot American Summer phenomenon. Originally it was a 2001 cult classic about a Maine summer camp, and it’s always been known for the quality of its cast more than the quality of its script. This is a project that’s very much a love or hate effort. I’ve never met someone that thinks, “Eh, it’s alright,” when discussing Wet Hot American Summer. This is a movie and now a series that generates an extreme reaction, and in large part, it comes down to this.
Do you like having fun? Or, in the words of Cosmo Kramer, are you just saying you want to have some fun.
To enjoy Wet Hot American Summer, shutting off the brain is indeed a primary requirement. The entire enterprise, created by Michael Showalter, who also stars in the series as Coop, and David Wain, who plays Yaron, is a cavalcade of improv and comedy veterans coming together to make the single campiest, most absurd, inappropriate, slapstick, juvenile retro comedy imaginable.
If the movie worked for you, Ten Years Later will as well. If the series worked for you, Ten Years Later will as well. If neither did, this will not change your mind. As with many cult classics, the evangelists are diehards, but if it doesn’t hit you, it never will. I love Richard Linklater, but Slacker never did it for me. Dazed and Confused, on the other hand, is a film I’ve seen countless times and never turn down an opportunity to view.
The advantage to Netflix’s Ten Years Later sequel, for Wet Hot American Summer fans, is that we get to see virtually all of the characters we know in a much different place in life. Coop is an author, Katie a make-up mogul, Victor a successful bartender, just to name a few. The heart behind Wet Hot American Summer is in the reality that regardless of how much changes between these characters, nothing really changes. Feelings are exposed within these eight episodes that lead to new directions, but these individuals are generally the same…
…once they return to Camp Firewood.
It’s the same story many of us find when we attempt to reconnect with old high school classmates, especially those with whom we might not have gotten along or those with whom a breakup ended poorly. Guess what? All of that past sticks around, and often times those friend requests never get answered. Sometimes the geek gets the girl, and sometimes the bully ends up a loser, but often times, the geek makes strides but still gets shunned by the blonde cheerleader.
Wet Hot American Summer, with very few exceptions, put all of the junior counselors together and allowed them all to coexist in believable ways. Coop and Katie actually clicked, and although Donna became a new age lunatic, even the assholes at Camp Firewood had moments of appreciative candor.
Ten Years Later, Paul Rudd’s Andy Fleckner is still the exact same guy he used to be, but he’s older. He’s still got a denim jacket, terrible hair, and now has awful facial hair to match. He was once king of the camp, but now he’s a fossil who finds his only claim to fame and importance threatened by a next generation version of himself (Skyler Gisondo).
What you liked about these men and women remains intact, as do those portions of each character that might irritate the hell out of you. This is the most absurd of concepts, where H. Jon Benjamin’s Mitch is back, and he’s still a talking can of mixed vegetables. This time, however, the healthy can ends up banging a woman doggy style in a bathroom. I crap you not, no pun intended. This is something that actually happens at one point during these episodes.
Wet Hot American Summer has never been about creating something real. It’s about playing around in a fantasyland of its own creation. The stars are permitted to act like complete idiots, but ones that then attempt real emotion while overacting. And what a list of stars it is, from Elizabeth Banks, Paul Rudd, Marguerite Moreau, Zak Orth, and Amy Poehler to Christopher Meloni, Chris Pine, Josh Charles, and Lake Bell. That’s not even a third of the complete rundown. Improv vets from Stella, The State, Saturday Night Live, Second City, the Upright Citizens Brigade, and everything in between litter the screen.
These are intensely flawed individuals, whose strengths and weaknesses manifest themselves in relatable, familiar ways. Ken Marino’s Victor talks up the sheer magnitude of sex he’s having, but he’s been a behind-closed-doors virgin with no self-confidence since the moment we’ve met him. Molly Shannon’s Gail gets engaged and married way too quickly and actually divorced Randall Park’s Jeff on the same day she both chose to marry him, pushed Christopher Meloni’s Gene Jenkinson to the side at the altar, and actually wed Jeff.
The story is merely a backdrop, but Ten Years Later focuses itself around camp director Beth (Janeane Garofalo) planning to sell Camp Firewood. It ends up involving Ronald Reagan (Showalter in a second role, which he originally played in the prequel), George H.W. Bush (Michael Ian Black’s new secondary character), and some of the key players from Camp Tiger Claw.
Obviously, our heroes want the camp to remain as it is, and they want it to remain a camp for young people. Reagan has a reason he needs control of the area, and he enlists a number of people to make it a reality. However, his plan doesn’t stay a secret, and the race to inform the reunion-goers at Firewood sets the stage for the sequel series’ final act.
The series has always balanced the completely crass and ridiculous with a true heart, both with the main characters as well as the campers, who have to deal with the same sorts of bullies, jocks, brains, and hotties the adults do, but aren’t quite as equipped to handle them. Watching Coop assist Kevin in First Day of Camp was one of the prequel’s strongest sequences, and although the kids are much less the focus here, the heart still exists within the adults.
Provided you can completely shut off your brain, you can have a lot of fun watching any version of Wet Hot American Summer. If you think AT ALL, you’re screwed. The jokes are sophomoric, the acting as candied as humanly possible, and the story implausible on every level. In short, it’s exactly what this type of show should strive to be. If you’re unable to deal with something bonkers in your life, pass on this and run in the opposite direction.
But, if you want something that’s truly an escape, and a four hour binge watch this weekend, you could do much worse than these eight episodes. Another thing Wain and Showalter got right this time are the run times, which are often several minutes shorter than the 2015 prequel episodes. This makes them speed by and doesn’t require as much time-filling nonsense.
Of the three Wet Hot American Summer projects, this one is my favorite, even with Bradley Cooper unable to reprise his role of Ben. His replacement, who I won’t name (although you find out within the first three minutes of the season opener), is quite worthy and fits like a camp softball glove into this universe. Other key additions include Mark Feuerstein (Royal Pains), Alyssa Milano, Jai Courtney, and Marlo Thomas.
The star power alone and watching so many talented people interact, improvise, and go batshit crazy together in such a comically farcical construct is enough for me to tell you to go to camp this weekend. It’s not an A, and it’s not an Emmy-worthy show as a whole, but it’s a diversionary B- (maybe even better with a few beers in you) that you can laugh your ass off watching, as long as you’re willing to take off the monocle and get stupid.
Plus, Jefferson Starship’s “Jane” gets me dancing every single time. I look forward to the title screen so much just for that thunderous guitar riff. It builds beautifully, and the song flat out rocks.
Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later is a perfect, campy escape from the real into the surreal, and it’s just fucking fun. It always has been. It always will be.
And that’s enough, especially right now.
I’m @JMartOutkick. Subscribe to Outkick the Culture via iTunes and rate us while you’re there! McKinley needs to experience “The Ultimate.”