THE SERIES “Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later”
WHEN | WHERE Starts streaming Friday on Netflix
WHAT IT’S ABOUT A funny thing happened in July 2001, when “Wet Hot American Summer,” an affectionate spoof of teen comedies set in 1981, landed in theaters. Looking back, it’s tough to imagine that any movie starring Bradley Cooper, Amy Poehler, Paul Rudd, Janeane Garofalo and Elizabeth Banks could have been a flop, but the film met widespread critical disdain and box-office indifference.
Co-written by Michael Showalter (“The Big Sick”) with director David Wain, “Wet Hot American Summer” now looks like a harbinger of contemporary comedy, partly because its stars have become household names but also because of its improvisational style, high raunch factor and self-aware attitude. The film gained such a cult following over the years that in 2015 Netflix reconvened the entire cast for an eight-episode prequel, subtitled “First Day at Camp.” That format — bingeable streaming, which didn’t exist in 2001 — seemed to suit Wain and Showalter well, and they’ve returned with a sequel, “Ten Years Later,” in which the teenage counselors, now in their mid-20s, hold a reunion at dear old Camp Firewood.
MY SAY The original “Wet Hot American Summer” may have been little more than a grab-bag of skits, satires and goofs, but it had some saving graces. Despite the off-color jokes, it never felt cruel or mean-spirited. (Its two gay characters, though played for laughs, were also treated with respect.) The fun-loving cast seemed game for anything, be it kissing with mouthfuls of bubble gum or making love to a refrigerator. Most were too old to play adolescents, of course, but that was both part of the joke and the very thing that made the characters so endearing.
All those qualities serve this new series well. It’s fun to get reacquainted, in the opening episode, with Amy Poehler’s Susie, now a famous Hollywood actress; Paul Rudd’s Andy, whose bad-boy image is straining under the weight of real life; and Ken Marino’s Victor, whose curly perm and virginity remain intact. The aforementioned gay characters — McKinley, played by Michael Ian Black, and Ben, played by an actor whom Netflix wants to keep under wraps (though you can Google it) — are now living in domestic bliss with a baby daughter. And because the year is 1991, geeky J.J. (Zak Orth) is working at Kim’s, the landmark video rental store in Manhattan.
And what of Gerald “Coop” Cooperberg (Showalter), the sensitive guy who never got the girl (Katie, played by Marguerite Moreau)? He’s become a writer whose unfinished memoir provides a knowingly corny framing device for the story we’re about to be told.
That story, in true “Wet Hot” fashion, is an anything-goes mix of absurdities, movie spoofs, fourth-wall breaking (“Now let’s switch to your storyline, Susie!”) and, occasionally, genuine storytelling. For a series that includes ludicrous creations such as the psychotic Vietnam vet Gene (Christopher Meloni) and his friend Can of Mixed Vegetables (the voice of H. Jon Benjamin), it’s surprising how emotionally involved we get in Coop’s confused feelings for Katie, or J.J.’s secret crush on a new character, Claire (Sarah Burns).
Even when “Ten Years Later” goes off on tangents, as when Victor experiments sexually with New Age swingers Donna and Yaron (Lake Bell and Wain himself), or repeats earlier plot lines (such as a looming disaster that echoes the original movie’s Skylab incident), the show has a freewheeling energy that’s impossible to resist. In hindsight, “Wet Hot American Summer” wasn’t really a movie at all, but a modern-day streaming series waiting to happen.
BOTTOM LINE Even if you aren’t part of the “Wet Hot American Summer” cult, this series should provide plenty of goofy, gonzo fun.