“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.
10 Years Later (it debuts Friday; I’ve seen all eight episodes) finally lets everyone age a bit, as it takes place during the reunion Ben proposed near the end of the movie. The new season is in many ways even more at the mercy of its stars’ schedules than First Day of Camp: Cooper was too busy to do it at all (though the workaround for his absence is amusing), Meloni doesn’t turn up until relatively late in the action (one of several reasons this is less satisfying overall than the previous season), several characters take multi-episode naps (always with sheets over their faces) and Banks’ Lindsay is off in a separate storyline for nearly the whole thing (and when Lindsay finally does arrive at camp, she almost never appears in the same frame as her co-stars, suggesting her material was filmed separately). To compensate, a few dead characters get resurrected just because those actors happened to be free, while newcomers like Adam Scott, Mark Feuerstein, and Sarah Burns are treated like they’ve been part of the gang all along, even inserted Forrest Gump-style into scenes from the movie.
Where the film was a very specific parody of ’70s and ’80s summer camp films, the Netflix spinoffs are more collections of silly bits of business that can somehow be grafted onto a camp setting. Kristen Wiig briefly reprises her First Day of Camp role as a rich snob from rival Camp Tiger Claw, just so she can play a progressively silly group of musical instruments. Sometimes, there’s a more direct spoof of the era (grunge is now in style, so of course Rudd’s juvenile Andy now looks exactly like Cliff Poncier from Singles), or of a familiar bit of ’90s pop culture (Alyssa Milano plays a Hand That Rocks the Cradle-esque psycho nanny), but generally it’s just whatever goofy idea Showalter and Wain had, like Showalter and Michael Ian Black playing Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, who are plotting together for some reason to destroy Camp Firewood once and for all.
It is, like First Day of Camp, very hit-or-miss. Some of the newbies never entirely click, while other relative latecomers (particularly Wain and Lake Bell as Hebrew-speaking lovers who rope Ken Marino’s muscular virgin Victor into solving their fertility issues) inject some fresh life into the proceedings given the absence of some characters and the diminishing returns of others.
When it hits, it’s wonderful, and when it doesn’t, it’s still okay, because it’s just nice to have (most of) the gang together yet again in this world. Which is why we go to reunions: They may be inherently flawed compared to the original time we spent together, but it’s still so pleasing to be back in each other’s company.