Mild spoilers follow.
2015’s “Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp” achieved what few revivals have: it at the very least matched the original (2001’s much-loved and much-ignored “Wet Hot American Summer”) and arguably outshined it.
Keep in mind that “First Day of Camp,” while airing 14 years after the movie, takes place in the same 1981 summer. David Wain, Michael Showalter, and the rest managed to keep the spirit, silliness, and earnestness of the original movie. They also successfully juggling a bloated cast of now-famous actors and comedians, including Bradley Cooper, Amy Poehler, Elizabeth Banks, and Paul Rudd.
Like “First Day,” “Ten Years Later” brings back (almost) the entire original cast and adds a few guest stars. The shift to 1991 is based on an agreement from the movie that the counselors will regroup at camp in a decade (“What time you wanna meet?” “You mean ten years from now?”). Initially, the series catches viewers up on the characters’ lives. They’re in their 20s and definitely in Hollywood’s version of the early ’90s, complete with Jesus Jones’ “Right Here, Right Now.”
Katie (Marguerite Moreau) is a VP at a cosmetics company, Coop (Showalter) an aspiring writer, J.J. (Zak Orth) a pretentious video store clerk, Gary (A. D. Miles) a chef, Susie (Poehler) a movie producer. Neil (Joe Lo Truglio) and Victor (Ken Marino) persist as bartending men out of time. Two retconned characters, Mark and Claire (Mark Feuerstein and Sarah Burns), struggle with “taking the next step” of moving in together after dating for a decade.
Packing In a Few Too Many Things
Still, “Wet Hot” mostly dispenses with the characters’ careers and ’90s trappings once everyone arrives at Camp Firewood. It shifts (in a way) to the camp director’s selling Firewood to former president Ronald Reagan, a man with devious motives. The former counselors come to terms with their lives and relationships in their mid-20s. This means Andy (Rudd) accepting that he’s no longer “King of Camp.” Or Katie and Coop addressing their feelings. Or Victor (still) trying to get laid.
Unfortunately, “Ten Years Later” lacks the relative cogency and, most importantly, the laughs of its predecessors. It feels rushed and less goofy, despite rampant absurdity. It features an overarching story that walks a fine line between barrel-scraping and inspired while spending far too much time on Reagan and George H.W. Bush (Michael Ian Black). I kept waiting for everything to click and it never did.
The focus on the plot and the characters as adults took away from the lifeblood of “Wet Hot American Summer”: the camp itself. The show often references the “spirit of Camp Firewood,” a nod in part to the real cult mentality of summer camps. But that aspect helps “Wet Hot” stand out. “Ten Years Later” could have taken place in a hotel, a farm, or at the beach, and little would have changed. Campers played almost no role. Neither did rival camp Tiger Claw, a highlight of “First Day.” The mess hall basically made a cameo appearance. It is a series fundamentally about camp, no matter how fantastical the plot.
The convoluted and exhausting finale supposedly makes the season about the camp. It almost works as a parody of lazy, needless “it was connected all along” storytelling. But the first seven episodes failed to set the stage comedically. The finale ends up mimicking the trope it’s supposed to mock.
They Had Fun, But Not Sure the Audience Did
The guest stars didn’t work either. “First Day of Camp” perfectly integrated the likes of Chris Pine, Jason Schwartzman, Jon Hamm, and Michael Cera. Those new characters had a purpose and, more importantly, kept the laughs going. Apart from Adam Scott, the same can’t be said for Jai Courtney, Alyssa Milano, and Feuerstein in “Ten Years Later.” Their characters contributed little to the story and very few laughs.
The cast and crew clearly love working together and working in the “Wet Hot” universe. The creators of “Wet Hot” boast quite a resume, including “The State,” “Childrens Hospital,” “MADtv,” and “Stella.” David Wain is the best hope this side of “Angie Tribeca” for a revival of Leslie Nielsen-esque spoofs. They’ve done an admirable job of keeping a 15-year-old property fresh without coming off as desperate or rote. They all have the experience and talent to bounce back with a third series. But they failed to recapture the magic in “Ten Years Later.”