Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later
Director: David Wain
Starring: Michael Showalter, Marguerite Moreau, Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks
Writers: David Wain & Michael Showalter
A review by Michael Walls-Kelly
When Wet Hot American Summer premiered in 2001, it was the definition of a cult film. A weird, niche movie that bombed at the box office but eventually grew a small, passionate fan base. Even so, the odds of there ever being a sequel were incredibly slim.
But then Netflix happened. They had money to burn and craved original content. Thankfully for us fans of Wet Hot they were willing to throw money at Michael Showalter and David Wain, the creators of the movie, to make an eight episode series. The movie had a memorable scene where the camp counselors discuss getting together in ten years time back at Camp Firewood, a perfectly built-in opportunity for a sequel. Instead, Wain and Showalter made a prequel series set on the first day of camp. It’s no surprise that they would subvert our expectations and go for the funnier joke.
But now, two years after Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, we’re finally getting Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later.
We drop in on our favourite camp counselors in 1991 and treated to a wide array of storylines that pull from films like Singles, The Big Chill, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, The Six Million Dollar Man, The Fugitive and, of course, summer camp comedies.
Coop (Showalter) heads back to the reunion in search of an ending to his memoir. Katie (Marguerite Moreau), now more mature and looking to settle down, goes in search of Coop. Andy (Paul Rudd), now a burnout, has to face a reflection of his younger self. McKinley and Ben (Michael Ian Black and Adam Scott) are raising their baby daughter. Lindsay (Elizabeth Banks) is a reporter in New York, working hard to uncover a big story. Beth (Janeane Garofolo) is considering selling the camp. These are only a small number of the storylines within the series.
Oh, also, Ronald Reagan and George Bush plan to blow up Camp Firewood using a nuke Reagan buried underneath it.
Yes, the series goes bigger than the falling SkyLab from the original film, or the full-on camp rumble and SWAT assault in First Day of Camp. But the best parts of the series aren’t necessarily the ridiculous storylines or the crazy riffs on standard tropes.
The best parts in all of the Wet Hot series are when the filmmakers show a total lack of regard for the conventions of the fourth wall or the reality within the series itself. This mostly involves calling out plot holes or referring to specific episodes by number. One character takes a nap early on, removing a busy actor from most of the middle episodes. Something similar happens with Bradley Cooper in First Day of Camp, but this time they just recast and explained it away with a “nose job.” These types of jokes can feel too ironic and can come off like they filmmakers believe they’re above it all, but in Wet Hot it brings the audience in on the joke, which helps when the comedy can sometimes be impenetrable.
The absolute sincerity of the cast is what truly sells the series. Without it, we wouldn’t give a shit when a sentient can of mixed vegetables has to assemble a team to stop Ronald Reagan’s evil plan. But we do! Another reason why Wet Hot American Summer became a cult classic is that of its cast. People like Bradley Cooper, Elizabeth Banks, Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd became massive stars, and the comedy influence of the rest of the cast — a lot of them former members of the sketch series The State — have only grown in recent years. So it’s no wonder that they were able to pull in new talent like Kristen Wiig, Jai Courtney, Jason Schwartzman, Mark Feuerstein, Sarah Burns (those last two hilariously edited into footage from the movie to make it seem like they were there all along), Alyssa Milano and Dax Shepard.
I want to single out two new additions to the Netflix shows and someone who’s been there since the movie: Josh Charles, Chris Pine, and Michael Ian Black. Charles was perfect casting as the smarmy leader of the rich camp across the lake — another classic camp movie trope — and his dedication to the role made me weirdly invested in his character’s arc. Chris Pine is similar to Jon Hamm in that they’re both handsome leading men and great dramatic actors who are also, annoyingly, hilarious. Pine’s weirdly pitched performance stands apart from everything around him. One line delivery, in particular, was so Matt Berry-esque that I had to pause the show I was laughing so hard.
Michael Ian Black deserves as much praise as we can give him. I mean, half the reason a follow-up series even exists is because of how funny he was in the movie’s trapper keeper scene. In Ten Years Later Black takes on two roles, McKinley and George Bush. McKinley is obviously great, a fan favourite character, but his work as Bush is impressive. He creates a fully-fleshed out character without just being an impression (or an impression of an impression) which makes him incredibly fun to watch. He also gets possibly the funniest line of the series in a quick phone call in the oval office:
“Yes, this is President Bush. No, President Reagan isn’t President anymore, I succeeded him. All right, you too, bye bye.”
While the finale of Ten Years Later was a little lackluster compared to the movie or First Day of Camp, it ended in a very fitting place. I doubt we’ll get a third Netflix series (saying that I also would have bet against us getting anything past the movie) so this seems like an excellent way to leave the characters. Even though this is the third entry in the series, and the influence of the film has crept into a lot of comedies in the last 15 years, Ten Years Later never feels tired or like a lazy retread. It’s always fun, always surprising and it’s one of the few shows that will make you happy for a can of mixed vegetables by the end of it.
Watch it! One warning though: Wet Hot American Summer was a cult film for a reason, so it’s not to everyone’s taste. If you’re a fan of something like Children’s Hospital or Comedy Bang Bang or Angie Tribeca, then this should be exactly your thing. At least watch the movie and see if it’s for you. As a series, Ten Years Later never overstays its welcome. While it might shortchange some of the characters, it’s also so overloaded with great and funny actors that you barely notice. It was fun returning to Camp Firewood, and I’m sure sometime, in the near future, I’ll revisit it all over again.