Michael Ian Black and Adam Scott (Photo: Saeed Adyani/Netflix)

Wet Hot American Summer has expanded from a relatively small, esoteric comedy film about a weird summer camp into a massive, highly populated action series that also just happens to be set at a weird summer camp. Sequels always demand a raising of the stakes, even if those stakes were already comically hyperbolic and unmoored from reality. So after Camp Firewood’s first run-in with Ronald Reagan back in 1981, the reconstituted counselor crew is naturally up against Reagan and his successor, Bush 41. That scary-looking bunker, as revealed in the closing moments of “Softball,” is The Gipper’s doing, and contains a nuclear warhead with which he wants to destroy Camp Firewood once and for all. But somehow, this season’s outsize threat to the camp feels more unwelcome than usual.

Maybe the plot structure feels too familiar, or perhaps it’s that Michael Showalter’s Ronald Reagan has lost its novelty, especially since he’s not in the West Wing cramming handfuls of jelly beans into his mouth. But I wasn’t thrilled to see Reagan or to see Michael Ian Black pulling double-duty as H-Dubya, as lovably absurd as the idea of it is. Wet Hot is already overpopulated as it is, and there’s been no effort to slow the growth, hence the ahistorical introduction of Mark and Claire. The difference is that Camp Firewood can add as many characters as it wants to. It’s a summer camp after all, with such a large cast of attendees and employees that the retconning of Mark and Claire doesn’t feel like such an imposition. (Plus I never get tired of “They were here all along” gags like the tree-carving scene. Or at least I haven’t gotten tired of them by episode two of eight.) But the reintroduction of executive-branch intrigue feels excessive and old-hat, even as it fits perfectly into the show.

The too-familiar beats of the Reagan-Bush stuff are thankfully balanced out by more appealing elements like the long-awaited return of Andy. In a classic bit of comic misdirection, the editing leads us to believe the hotshot barreling into Camp Firewood on an all-terrain vehicle is Andy. But the only donuts Andy is doing is with the glazed old-fashioneds he’s double-fisting. All of the Camp Firewood gang has aged into logical progressions of themselves, including Andy, who has gone from being the young hotshot to the old loser trying to relive his glory days. Andy’s return is a bit underwhelming, which is by design to a certain extent. The first episode makes us miss Andy and anticipate his return, only to be as disappointed by 1991 Andy as 1991 Andy is. Andy is rendered even less impressive by the introduction of Deegs, the latest obnoxious hottie to ascend into the role Andy once vacated. “He’s like Andy, but for today!” says a charmed McKinley.

Andy’s rivalry with the younger version of himself is set up as a plot in “Softball,” as is Susie’s torrid affair with Garth MacArthur, and the “Jessie’s Girl”-style love triangle between J.J., Mark, and Claire. But the lion’s share of the plotting goes toward Ben and McKinley, who may or may not be in the crosshairs of a evil nanny straight out of an early-’90s domestic thriller. In theory, I love everything about this story because I’m super into domestic thrillers and Lifetime movies about women with borderline personality disorder. Alyssa Milano’s Renata is a suspiciously perfect nanny clearly inspired by Rebecca DeMornay’s character in The Hand That Rocks The Cradle, better known as “the film most often missing from Curtis Hanson obituaries.” Claire has a good time explaining the evil nanny trope to McKinley, who goes all tiger dad and investigates Renata’s sketchy history. Now that he’s been properly labeled as a hysterical first-time parent, Renata can show exactly what’s behind that barely noticeable facial tic.

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By this point in First Day Of Camp, I was so delirious over getting more adventures in the Wet Hot universe that I wasn’t being quite as critical about where the plot was going. Ten Years Later really has to justify its existence and “Softball” doesn’t go a long way towards doing that. Part of me already wishes Beth’s decision to sell the camp would be enough to drive the story instead of yet another conspiracy that goes all the way up. Camp Firewood hasn’t changed a bit, but I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

Stray observations

  • I did crack up when McKinley’s one-sided conversation with the nanny service suddenly became two-sided just in time to hang up.
  • Susie and Garth MacArthur are “pitching woo,” she confesses.
  • Andy: “Where’s Katie? Tell her I wanna fuck her.”
  • The Hand That Rocks The Cradle didn’t come out until January 1992. Just saying.

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