Wet Hot American Summer is one of the most rewatchable movies out there. The 2001 comedy, directed by David Wain, is deliriously, enthusiastically dumb, chronicling the last day of lunacy at the idyllic Camp Firewood as the summer of 1981 comes to a close. No punchline is too silly, no cutaway too obvious, no cliché too clichéd. It’s endlessly quotable and relentlessly fun, and every time I watch it I come away with a new favorite joke.
But now that Netflix has turned the film into a TV franchise — starting with the 2015 prequel series First Day of Camp and continuing this week with a new sequel, the ’90s-set 10 Years Later — the jokes that were once so bonkers and buoyant have started to sag.
First Day of Camp had some fun with new characters, not to mention its winking refusal to explain why all of the returning “teen” characters — played by the film’s original cast — look 15 years older on the first day of camp than they do on the last. But it was also shaggy, scattered, and hampered by the obvious fact that barely any of its actors could be in the same place at the same time, because they’d all become a lot more famous, and therefore a lot busier, since making the original film. By the time I finished watching it, I was glad it existed but had a feeling I would rarely be tempted to revisit it.
Unfortunately, that sentiment holds doubly true for 10 Years Later, which takes place in 1991 and centers on the camp counselor reunion first teased in the original film. While the cast is solid enough that it can sell almost anything, taking a third trip to Camp Firewood makes for a reunion that would’ve been best left to our imaginations.
Here’s the good, bad, and weird of this latest — and hopefully final — return to the world of Wet Hot American Summer.
Good: the Wet Hot cast is still great
The reason Wet Hot American Summer: 10 Years Later is here at all is the same reason the movie ever worked in the first place: its excellent cast.
The original film brought together an eclectic mix of known and unknown performers, from Paul Rudd and pre-SNL Amy Poehler to The State comedians Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter to then-future movie stars Bradley Cooper and Elizabeth Banks to bonus Janeane Garofalo and Christopher Meloni (and I still haven’t mentioned at least three of my favorites). First Day of Camp then capitalized on the original cast’s collective rise in fame to bring in even more big players — including Josh Charles and Kristen Wiig as Camp Firewood’s preppiest rivals. Both Charles and Wiig return for 10 Years Later, as do many more of the prequel’s cast additions. And they’re all joined by Adam Scott, who makes his Wet Hot debut in 10 Years Later to play Bradley Cooper’s character post-nose job (truly, a deviated septum can change an entire face.)
Everyone is exactly as enthusiastic and willing to make total idiots of themselves as the Wet Hot way of life requires. Rudd as Camp Firewood’s most dedicated dirtbag and John Early as Poehler’s camp theater rival are particular standouts, relishing every ounce of sneering material they get. Even 10 Years Later’s weakest moments are lifted a bit by the rock-solid cast performing them.
Weird: the unsung hero of Wet Hot American Summer is still the can of vegetables
It’s difficult to name the weirdest part of a series that is wall-to-wall weirdness, but I’ll go with H. Jon Benjamin returning as a sentient can of vegetables — the product of a man sliding into a pool of toxic sludge — and going on the lam to escape the wrath of Ronald Reagan. To say more would rob you of the particular joy of his madcap road trip adventures, so let’s leave it at that.
Bad: there’s just not a whole lot left that Wet Hot has to say
Where the Wet Hot American Summer movie parodied ’80s sex comedies and First Day of Camp doubled down on surrealism, 10 Years Later mostly rehashes old punchlines and makes fun of itself for doing so. There are long, long stretches — especially toward the beginning — where the humor alternates between ’90s references and the characters making meta jokes about themselves. Plus, with eight episodes to fill, 10 Years Later careens right through them, which gets old quickly.
About halfway through the season, watching 10 Years Later starts to feel like stumbling into a real live reunion that you weren’t invited to, but everyone there sure is having a great time, so you might as well have a drink and listen to them shoot the shit. It’s obvious when they find something hilarious, but less so why.
Still, it’s hard to blame the Wet Hot team for wanting to take another crack at Camp Firewood. Everyone involved in 10 Years Later probably had a hell of a good time getting together and throwing ridiculous jokes at each other like it’s a competitive sport on Netflix’s generous dime. So while the result can be frustrating to watch, it’d be understandable if they made it more for themselves than for anyone else.
Wet Hot American Summer: 10 Years Later, Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, and Wet Hot American Summer (Original Movie Flavor) are all available to stream on Netflix.