Skyler Gisondo, Janeane Garofalo, and Paul Rudd (Photo: Saeed Adyani/Netflix)

Wet Hot American Summer teeters between being a rousing, fast-paced tall tale suited to the campfire and a relentless joke delivery machine. The first half of Ten Years Later has leaned too far toward the latter, so even when the jokes land, there’s a certain emptiness to the whole affair. It’s the same challenge faced by Angie Tribeca, which has figured out over time how to work as both a cop procedural and a Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker-style send-up of a cop procedural. Wet Hot has perfected its formula on more than one occasion, so it’s been disappointing to watch the novelty wear off so quickly after the premiere. Luckily, “King Of Camp” and “Rain” arrive just in time to pull me back aboard this delirious ride.

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It helps that both episodes are built on solid episodic concepts. In “King Of Camp,” the Andy-Deegs rivalry reaches its breaking point, leading the most-honored King of Camp to challenge his hotshot successor to see who really deserves to be the Big Man On Campsite. The bittersweet aging process is a mandatory theme for any story about a reunion, and Andy is the perfect vessel for it. Andy’s post-Firewood decline got a terrific introduction when he returned to camp and revealed graying hair, a paunch, and a talent for donut multi-tasking. But “King Of Camp” fleshes it out in classic Wet Hot fashion, pitting Andy and Deegs against each other in a gauntlet of physical and mental challenges. (It’s buried deep in the Camp Firewood bylaws according to J.J., who is a fount of institutional knowledge about this place.)

The idea behind “Rain” is lower concept but arguably more interesting. What do the campers and counselors do on a washed-out day? Michael Showalter and David Wain, who share their first co-writing credit this season, use that question to confine the Firewood characters and drive the romantic subplots. Maybe “romantic” isn’t the best word to describe Victor’s deeply traumatic sexual debut. Kudos to Victor for sticking it out, if you will, because he was weirded out already when Yaron emerged to take part in the “ceremony.” The robes and masks might have scared off the most sexually adventurous among us, but Victor decides he’s come too far to turn back. (I guess once you’ve donned the robe and mask, you’re in for a pound.) Given Donna and Yaron’s considerable issues with boundaries, I hope they know not to share details with their future child about his nightmarish conception.

The actually romantic subplot, assuming you’re into it, is the love triangle between Coop, Katie, and Ginny, which has followed a pretty familiar template if you’ve ever watched Friends. Not that Friends invented romantic entanglements in sitcoms, but part of what makes Wet Hot’s parodies so funny is how slavishly the show adheres to whatever formula it’s poking fun at. This particular combination reeks strongly of Friends, as if Showalter and Wain decided to take the Rachel-Ross-Julie and Rachel-Ross-Emily stories and smush them together. So naturally, when Coop and Katie have their moment of realization, Ginny is in a perfect position to witness them kissing and break off her engagement to Coop. I recognize the importance of this storyline even as I’m still having trouble warming to it. I actually rooted for Andy and Katie in First Day Of Camp despite my loyalty to Coop, but now I’m sort of underwhelmed. Coop still hasn’t grown into a leading man-type, so his relationship with Katie feels like more of a side story than it should.

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Wet Hot’s take on the domestic psychological thriller is going much better, even though it too adheres so closely to the source material. The way the “Renata the Hot ‘n’ Crazy Nanny” story plays out is nearly identical to The Hand That Rocks The Cradle, a trashy thriller that is awesome and should be watched by everyone. As Claire would have been happy to tell McKinley, the next phase of this story is the part where the suspicious parent is further isolated and discredit so the life-usurping can begin in earnest. Renata’s plan also involves leaving meticulous little clues around to raise McKinley’s suspicion only to reveal a surprise party for Ben and McKinley’s tin anniversary. Oh, and that reference on the phone to killing the baby? She was actually referring to acclaimed Asheville, North Carolina swing band Kill The Baby. The band reveal is one of the funniest moments of the series, so the familiarity of the plotting didn’t distract me.

What the episodes have in common is their surprising ability to tie together all these disparate threads into something approaching a cohesive story. The hard part, it seems, was introducing all this chaos in the first place, and now that the foundation has been laid, the real fun can begin. I’m enjoying the road trip with Gene, Mitch, Eric, and Greg, the latter two of which appeared to be dead only to be reborn as Soul Glimmer. Eric’s story of death and resurrection is pretty hysterical, including a brief but successful stint as a copy writer over at Saatchi & Saatchi. A “similar thing” happened to Greg, but let’s not get too far into the weeds. Gail (Molly Shannon) gets an unexpected visit from Gene, who tries his damnedest to avoid learning that he now has a daughter who may one day need him to sit her down and talk to her about the birds, bees, and refrigerators. But there’s no time for that now, they’ve got a camp to save. Or blow up. Or something.

Stray observations

  • Little Ronnie Reagan used to attend Camp Firewood! It’s exactly the break Lindsay needed, though she’s apparently way ahead of me on what it all means.
  • Speaking of Reagan, who knew he was so scatological? The “shit on my shit” cold open was a bit too weird for me but there are enough jokes here for everybody.
  • J.J. and Claire are an item now! Note to self: Don’t bring a richly detailed account of your sexual exploits on a vacation with your girlfriend.
  • Not to relitigate the whole King of Camp competition, but Andy’s dinosaur song was far better. Just saying.
  • Renata sure filleted the hell out of that sheet cake.
  • Between her out-in-the-open tryst with Mark and her willingness to direct Ginny to the goat barn, methinks Nurse Nancy is quite the homewrecker.
  • I’m not invested in Neil and Shari, but I sure enjoyed seeing Rob Huebel as the pretentious Brodfard Gilroy.
  • I loved the Coop and Katie callback to the flannel moment from the movie.
  • Are they still in 1991? I feel like I haven’t been reminded in some time.

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