“This whole reunion was a mistake,” Gerald “Coop” Cooperberg (Michael Showalter) insists late in Wet Hot American Summer: 10 Years Later.
It’s hard to blame Coop for this sentiment. Not only does he suffer various humiliations during a reunion of his fellow counselors from Camp Tigerclaw, but reunions in general — of campers, classmates, or TV shows — can be a dicey proposition at best. What was fun in your youth can somehow seem sad in adulthood, and isn’t it better to leave your memories untainted by the present?
Judged against the original 2001 movie version of Wet Hot American Summer — a film no one saw in theaters, before it became a cult obsession in part because then-unknown actors like Bradley Cooper, Amy Poehler, Paul Rudd, and Elizabeth Banks became huge stars — the two Netflix spinoff seasons (including 2015’s First Day of Camp prequel) can’t help but come up wanting. Though that’s less about age of everyone involved — all the stars, not to mention the creative duo of Showalter and writer/director David Wain, have become only sharper and funnier as their careers have risen — than about the challenge of shifting from a 97-minute film to collections of eight half-hour episodes, and of managing the schedules of its more-famous actors.
First Day of Camp impressively brought back nearly everyone, though it had to shuffle some of them off to the side for long stretches. (Towards the end, Cooper’s character Ben began wearing a ski mask just so a double could be used for those scenes.) And it both understood that Chris Meloni’s psychotic chef Gene was the movie’s funniest character, and that the joke shouldn’t be exhausted, smartly giving Meloni a lot to do, but for most of the running time as a very different version of Gene. It was hit-or-miss, but still a welcome return to Camp Firewood. If nothing else, it justified its existence by asking its actors — all of whom were intentionally way too old to play teenagers when the film was made — to play three months younger even though all were 14 years older.