Michael Showalter and David Wain have an ear for dialogue. It’s one of the things that makes them such sharp film parodists, the type who don’t settle for re-staging a famous scene or putting a popular film’s words in a new context. They pick up on the bigger picture—how that scene looks, or how those words sound—and warp it to their own comedic ends. They’ve always maintained that Wet Hot American Summer is rooted more in their own summer-camp experiences and less in the likes of Meatballs and Little Darlings, but because it plays with the customs and clichés of other types of movies—a romantic-comedy confession here, a sports-movie cliché there—it feels like it’s aiming at specific targets.
One phrase that seems to have caught their ears ever since they first brought Wet Hot out of mothballs in 2015: “Respect the spirit.” Let’s use the phrase in a sentence: Would Wet Hot American Summer: First Day At Camp respect the spirit of its cinematic predecessor, re-tapping the rich veins of filmmaking smarts and sometimes giddy, sometimes grim silliness that built the cult of Camp Firewood? And once they respected the spirit a first time, could they do it again, this time with a Netflix follow-up that builds the movie’s last joke into an eight-part miniseries?
The characters of Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later frequently invoke “the spirit of Camp Firewood”—although it and some of the other traditions Coop (Showalter) and his Firewood friends hold dear have never been mentioned until Ten Years Later’s first episode. Not that there’s any reason they couldn’t have been mentioned—after all, we’ve really only witnessed two full days in these characters lives, and who knows what happened between the first and last days of summer, 1981.
But the spirit of Camp Firewood eventually becomes a clever way of commenting on the affection the creators, cast, and fans have for these characters and their world. Nobody’s out to exploit anything here—exploitation is the game of the franchise’s villains, thoughtlessly malicious agents of the federal government who drop their space junk, toxic waste, and (in a show of Wet Hot’s mastery of comedic escalation) nuclear weapons on a harmless New England summer camp. To the contrary, Ten Years Later argues that the former junior counselors go overboard in honoring the spirt of Camp Firewood. It’s not quite the regression demonstrated in another recent, lesser Netflix comedy about reunited friends, but it is grounded in a sense that these people are terrible at letting go. Katie (Marguerite Moreau) is hung up on Coop (Showalter), the ineffectual goof she blew off for bad-boy Andy (Paul Rudd), who can’t seem to make it in the real world as a guy with Eddie Vedder’s mop and Chris Cornell’s goatee. Suzy (Amy Poehler) is a rising Hollywood producer, but she can’t resist the chance to act like a big fish in the small pond of Camp Firewood’s theater program. Victor (Ken Marino) is still no good at hiding his virginity.
Seeing what kind of people the counselors have blossomed into is a poignant subtext that was also present, just not as pronounced (or chronologically accurate), in First Day Of Camp. But it’s also the emotional firmament from which Showalter, Wain, and the writers (who include Showalter’s Search Party collaborators, Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers) rain down their torrent of jokes. The people change, but Wet Hot American Summer remains “can’t look away for a second” funny. Zak Orth gives a facial expression in episode two that would be another show’s biggest laugh (if said show had precedent for such surreal, vaudevillian gags), but is probably only the third- or fourth-funniest moment in that particular episode. The secret’s already out about how Ten Years Later worked around its toughest scheduling conflict, but that joke is too intricate to be fully blown by a bunch of internet headlines. On the soundtrack, Craig Wedren draws from the acts that were Shudder To Think’s contemporaries in 1991, with several feats of period-appropriate musical mimicry that count as punchlines on their own.
The ’90s give Wet Hot a whole new set of film styles to parody, too. There are winks toward Gen-X chronicles like Reality Bites, Singles, and Slacker (“that movie that just came out five weeks ago,” Suzy says, nonchalantly, of the third) and a killer variation on The Fugitive’s waterfall set-piece. Ten Years Later finds particular inspiration at the intersection between the psychological and erotic thrillers that briefly dominated the box office and video-store shelves during the decade, casting Alyssa Milano (who has prior experience in this area) as Renata, a mysterious nanny who seems to have it out for McKinley (Michael Ian Black) and his daughter. It’s the miniseries’ big genre play, cutting in and out of the main proceedings like the carving knife McKinley spots Milano’s character admiring in a country store.
The Renata storyline is one of those signs of the Wet Hot creators’ attention to convention, its story beats lending narrative rigor to the more free-flowing hijinks at Camp Firewood. It’s an unorthodox method for honoring the spirit of Camp Firewood, but it fits in this whacked-out world in which an entire flannel can be contained within a ringbox and a man can live a full, fulfilling life a decade after an industrial accident merged his consciousness with a can of vegetables.
It’s also the type of thing that suggests a conclusion to the Wet Hot saga. That’s what Coop’s searching for in the Maine wilderness, anyway, the emerging author told by his editor—in movie-perfect terms that are funny because no actual human would speak this way—that he needs to find an ending to his memoir. Ten Years Later finds inventive ways to make up for absent castmembers—a pinch-hitting Adam Scott, or Sarah Burns and Mark Feuerstein as former counselors who were apparently just out of frame in the movie and the first miniseries—and a deep dive into McKinley’s nanny anxiety is preferable to First Day At Camp’s camper storylines, which were filler that actually felt like filler. But it’s clear that it’s getting harder to stage these reunions. Elizabeth Banks is isolated from the main Firewood gang for most of the miniseries; Joe Lo Truglio’s participation is limited, due to his Brooklyn Nine-Nine commitments. Ten Years Later is sturdier and better paced than its admittedly great predecessor, but there are times when you’ll look around and wonder, “Where’d everybody go?”
And then the complement to that question: “Why is everybody here?” If there’s any definition of the spirit of Camp Firewood, it’s that the people need the place more than the place needs the people. The junior counselors of 1981 may be Firewood’s salvation, but they’re treated like dirt by the campers of 1991. These snot-nosed brats are even immune to Andy’s dickish anti-charms, initiating a rich, one-way rivalry with new “king of camp,” Jeremy “Deegs” Deegenstein (Skyler Gisondo). (You’ll always remember where you were the first time you heard somebody call the ageless Rudd “old man.”) But if this is to be the last Wet Hot hurrah, it’s going out on a note of both homage and addition. The traditions are shared by a select group of people, but that group’s ranks keep expanding, pulling in the friends they’ve made along the way (like Scott, Burns, and Feuerstein) and talent that’s grown up alongside Wet Hot (relative whippersnappers like Bliss, Rogers, and John Early). “Honoring the spirit of Camp Firewood” might be a parody of empty movie-ese, but the Wet Hot gang takes it seriously. If this isn’t the end, maybe they can all get back together in some futuristic nursing home for Wet Hot American Summer: 60 Years Later.
Reviews by Joshua Alston will run daily from August 4 through August 11.