Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later is the comedy reunion we’ve been waiting for since 2001. As promised in the final scene of director David Wain and screenwriter Michael Showalter’s original off-the-wall summer camp farce, the wet hot cast of now-notable comedians have made it their beeswax to be at Camp Firewood in 1991, and the results are spectacular. WHAS: Ten Years Later is four hours of the best TV comedians sharing a set and making 90s flavoured inside jokes with their fans.
The premise is all in the subtitle, Ten Years Later brings the counsellors, now in their mid-twenties, back to Camp Firewood. Each of them is living a 90s movie cliche life as a slacker or video store employee, or an aspiring chef, but upon returning to Camp Firewood, the high drama of a sweaty summer with no privacy forces them to confront their various personal cruxes. Coop (Showalter) never got over his love for Katie (Maguerite Moreau), McKinley (Michael Ian Black) has trust issues about the child he’s raising with Ben (Adam Scott replacing Bradley Cooper), Vic still hasn’t lost his virginity, and Andy (Paul Rudd) never grew up, a manchild doomed to fight the next generation version of himself in a contest to be the king of camp.
Some of the most delightful gags are broadly anachronistic wardrobe choices made to hammer home the 90’s aesthetic. Paul Scheer reprises his minor role as Lindsay’s (Elizabeth Banks) antagonistic news editor boss, only this time he’s rocking The Rachel (despite Friends not premiering until 1994), at one point Neil (Joe Lo Truglio) gives Vic a makeover with a turtleneck and chain to make him look like The Rock circa 1996, and a presidential cameo in the final episode will haunt my nightmares for the next decade thanks to the most upsetting Bill Clinton makeup you will ever see.
Of course, it’s not all hormones, flannel, and social drama, at Camp Firewood in ‘91. President Reagan is up to his old tricks again, and this time he’s dragging President George H. W. Bush into his conspiratorial antics. For reasons of revenge, Ronnie Reagan intends to launch a nuclear warhead into the atmosphere to rain hell back down on Camp Firewood. But first, he has to buy the camp from Beth (Janeane Garofalo), who is compelled to divest because she’s convinced the spirit of Camp Firewood is gone.
All of this is to say, every element of what can now be called the Wet Hot American Formula is here, just shifted into a different time period. The results are a hilarious combination of 90s references, callbacks to the film and prequel series, government conspiracy parody, camp fun, a scene where a can of mixed vegetables (H. Jon Benjamin) has sex with a roadside diner waitress, all held together with the signature stylings of Showalter and Wain. Ten Years Later is hilarious at times, and almost nihilistic in how much it doesn’t take itself seriously, which makes it all the more surprising when sweet emotional moments occur, with no joke in sight, and actually tug at your heartstrings.
I’d say that if you’re a fan of The State, Stella, Childrens Hospital, They Came Together, or Michael and Michael Have Issues, you will love Ten Years Later, but at this point, the Wet Hot American Summer saga is now the popular gateway to the rest of that cult comedy catalogue. And therein lies a strange problem. Much like Bradley Cooper, who is absent from the reunion, replaced by Adam Scott doing his damned best (despite these blueprints that are literally kicking his ass throughout the entire season), the original 2001 film version is also skipping the occasion. Wet Hot American Summer is no longer available on Netflix as of the writing of this review. This makes both Wet Hot American Summer TV series largely inaccessible to new audiences, which is a goddamn tragedy. At the best of times, Wain and Showalter’s humour is about being mystified or confused with delight even when you know all of the context for the jokes, but without the initial film to call back to, a newbie experiencing Ten Years Later will probably feel like the new kid at camp, missing all the inside jokes at their own expense like some Little Billy Shits-his-pants.
But that isn’t a criticism of the show. The fact that Ten Years Later is so dependent on other sources is a sign of the streaming medium being used to its full potential. This show was made for streaming, paced deliberately to be watched in a four hour marathon sitting, with a ton of set up in the first four episodes and a nuclear explosion of climax in in the back half. It’s not a show that has to justify itself, or pile on exposition for the new kids, because it’s not the starting point—Ten Years Later is being added on to the full WHAS experience. Or it would be, if Netflix didn’t turn the original film into the streaming equivalent of Bradley Cooper.