WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER: TEN YEARS LATER Review: Lightning Strikes Again

This return to Camp Firewood is even better than the last.

It was a miracle that Netflix granted us a return to the world of Wet Hot American Summer two years ago with First Day at Camp. No one in their right mind would have expected a reunion series for a cult film from 2001, particularly with the return of so many now-famous familiar faces. The only possible downside was a potential lack of that old Wet Hot magic, but that ended up being the second miracle. Not only was Wet Hot back; it was hilarious as well.

Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later lacks both the novelty and nostalgia of its predecessor, feeling more like another season of Wet Hot than a full-on reunion. Its 1991 setting and fulfillment of the ten years later promise teased in the original film give it a hook, but the prospect of new Wet Hot isn’t quite as exciting as it was two years ago.

In other words, there is more pressure for Ten Years Later to get by on its own terms. It does so by making a curious trade - pushing character and slight (very, very slight) sincerity ahead of its usual madcap insanity.

Make no mistake, there is a ton of Wet Hot’s trademark insanity. Talking cans fuck waitresses, Ronald Reagan takes the longest pee since Adam Sandler’s “The Longest Pee” (after which he also takes a dump and makes George Bush do the same), a whole host of characters come back from seemingly certain death, David Hyde Pierce’s cameo is recorded on Skype and ends with him ripping off his mustache and wishing the crew a good shoot. There is plenty of great stuff here.

First Day of Camp had an evergreen joke built into its prequel premise. The very sight of an older, overweight Michael Showalter portraying a teenager is a source of humor created by absurd setting alone. Ten Years Later has to focus more on the characters, first to explain where their lives are in 1991, and then to take those lives somewhere new. Ten Years Later’s biggest surprise is how almost everyone gets a happy ending. It might not be the ending expected at the start of the series, but nearly every main player ends up in a better place than they were before (there are some very funny exceptions). It’s a strange but welcome change of pace for a show/movie that usually gets so much comic milage from destroying such tropes.

This helps speak to the show’s comparative dearth of comedy as a whole. Not that such a thing can be quantified, but Ten Years Later isn’t quite a funny as First Day of Camp, which I suspect is why some have reported disappointment with it. I can’t go that far. There may be fewer jokes than before, but that still leaves it with far more jokes than many other comedies, all while utilizing the same impressive Wet Hot spectrum of hilarity - parody, wordplay, absurdism, meta-humor, extreme violence and all-out smartassisms (probably not a word).

Everyone is great in the show, though some stick around longer than others. Adam Scott replaces Bradley Cooper as Ben, but isn’t in it that much. Elizabeth Banks comes back but barely even makes it to Camp Firewood. Many returning characters are held back several episodes in service of superb reveals. Those who show up the most (Michael Ian Black, Janeane Garofalo, Ken Marino, Amy Poehler, Josh Charles, Lake Bell, Joe Lo Truglio, John Early, Zak Orth, Michael Showalter and Marguerite Moreau - holy shit this cast is huge) have their own interesting stories to follow that make the movements of each episode more interesting than the ones we got in First Day of Camp.

The overall story, as usual, deals with a total apocalypse for Camp Firewood, this time in the form of nuclear weapon ex-President Ronald Reagan wants to use on the camp for spiteful reasons. Whereas our last grouping of camp crusaders included Janeane Garofalo and Jason Schwartzman (with some amazing help from Michael Cera), this time we get the timeless crew of Schwarzman, H. Jon Benjamin, Christopher Meloni and Chris Pine.

Meloni and Pine alone make this show worth watching. Aged another ten years and down on his luck in a crappy RV, Meloni’s Gene has never been funnier or more likable (having a character mishear “You, Gene” as “Eugene” is an old one, but Meloni sells it like it’s the funniest joke ever written). And then there’s Pine. Already part of the Wet Hot universe, Chris Pine gets more into the absurdity here with an affected tough guy voice and bizarre body language that prove the guy’s comic ability. Pine’s has been funny before, but his skills here are revelatory and may totally disrupt your Chris rankings.

I watched First Day of Camp a few times, and while I love it, there are times when it feels a bit stretched and less engaging or its roughly four-hour run. I didn’t have that problem with Ten Years Later, which does a better job making you truly root for the characters as a group and through their individual arcs. While some may find betrayal in the show’s new sincerity, others will find themselves falling harder for Wet Hot than ever.

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