Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later brings together a stellar cast that makes nostalgia a laughing matter in a very funny follow-up series.
At first, the conceit of Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later seems both a necessary response to the absurdity of the actors noticeably aging between the release of the first film from 2001 and the 2015 prequel series for Netflix, Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp. But it also seems like just another level of calculated silliness from a very funny cast that excels at one-upping itself with one absurd moment after another. The impressive list of players could easily have made a second summer spent with the counselors of Camp Firewood into another hilarious eight-episode stint on the streaming service, but instead, creators David Wain and Michael Showalter set the series’ satirical eye toward the future… well, the original movie’s future, to see where the characters end up a decade from the events of the first film.
The leap forward doesn’t change the series that much; it’s still finding a fair amount of its humor by goofing on nostalgia. This time, though, it’s the early ’90s instead of the ’80s – which, considering television’s ongoing love affair with the latter decade makes this sequel series a welcome outlier and a show smart enough to move on to the next big thing. Seriously, in a few years, when the inevitable backlash against Stranger Things is in full swing, everyone will look to Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later as a warning sign that went unnoticed.
Prescient or not, Ten Years Later manages to make the passage of time into a hilariously superficial joke in its own right. The only thing that’s really changed about these characters is the way they look, which, given how long it’s been since the original film was made, allows the incongruity of the actors and the approximate ages of the characters they’re playing to still register as funny. Amy Poehler’s goodie-goodie Susie is now a partying producer/executive producer, Bradley Cooper’s Ben is now Adam Scott (literally), and Paul Rudd’s Andy is basically Matt Dillon’s character from Singles. The series still manages to skewer films from the era as well, this time turning away from coming of age sex-comedies like Meatballs, Porky’s, and Revenge of the Nerds, and instead zeroing in on 90s romantic comedies, and even touching on the decade’s influential indie film wave through Zak Orth’s character.
Ten Years Later is really the fulfillment of a promise – one devised by (of all people) Bradley Cooper’s Ben – that the gang from Camp Firewood would meet up in 10 years to see how their lives are all going. While that opens the door for the series to give the characters new things to talk about, and a few new characters to interact with, like Jai Courtney’s Garth, it is mostly just window dressing to introduce various ridiculous plot devices driving various stories and happenings. Coop (Showalter) is searching for the ending to his book, while still contemplating a relationship with Katie (Marguerite Moreau), who, after a decade thinks she might be ready to date a guy like him. There are other “grown-up” threads that make for some silly, one-off jokes, like Gary (A.D. Miles) being elevated to a place where he can show off his culinary skills, while Orth’s J.J. pines for newcomer, Sarah Burns’ Claire by constantly video taping her.
The biggest change is also one of the series’ best jokes: that Adam Scott is now Ben, replacing the likely very busy Bradley Cooper in the role. Cooper famously shot all of his First Day of Camp scenes in one day, making the adoption of his DJ Ski Mask identity a necessary contrivance that underlined the show’s unique relationship with continuity that also made for a pretty good visual joke. The same concept applies, with characters making passing reference to Ben having his deviated septum corrected, resulting in this minor shift in his appearance. Cooper’s absence not only provides an impromptu Parks & Recreation reunion, it’s a lot like the retroactive addition of the aforementioned Burns and Mark Feuerstein (as Mark), who get awkwardly spliced into actual footage from the original film, making for a series of running gags the Showalter and Wain capitalize on again and again.
In addition to the in-jokes, which come as fast and furious as ever, the show still leaves room for a storyline involving former President Reagan and President George H.W. Bush, played by Showalter and Michael Ian Black, respectively, that is a continuation of the outlandish plot involving Dutch and his plans to destroy Camp Firewood a decade prior.
As bonkers as the storylines, inside jokes, and plot devices are, the cast and creators of Wet Hot American Summer know how to sell all of them with appropriate levels of sincerity. The show wouldn’t work at all if the characters were caught winking at the audience. Instead, even an impromptu sex scene between the H. Jon Benjamin-voiced Can of Vegetables (née Mitch) and a roadside diner waitress is played with a level of straightforwardness that makes the joke funnier in a way that somehow prevents it from being merely crass.
It’s the same sort of genuineness that made The State, Showalter’s The Baxter, and the other two installments of this surprisingly enduring franchise work. There’s no telling whether or not Wet Hot American Summer will reunite again for another eight episodes, but given that the cast and creators are still finding plenty of A material to fill the show out with, you’d be hard pressed to find a reason not to make another trip to Camp Firewood.
Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later is available in its entirety on Netflix.
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