Wet Hot American Summer’s latest season suffers from something most other revivals generally don’t have to worry about. The show’s admirable refusal to take anything seriously makes it impossible to care about its characters. We don’t watch because we want to see how Chris Meloni’s Gene or Amy Poehler’s Susie are doing; we watch for the ridiculous situations those characters wind up in as the show makes fun of the very idea of being a show. A lackluster Gilmore Girls reunion can skirt by on the charms of Lauren Graham and Kelly Bishop and on our interest in the soap opera lives of Lorelai and Rory; Wet Hot American Summer is only as good as it is funny.
The first Wet Hot American Summer Netflix series in 2015 largely pulled it off. With four hours to fill, First Day of Camp was even more absurd than the 2001 movie, with Ronald Reagan playing an integral role, Elizabeth Banks’s character revealed as a Cameron Crowe-style undercover music journalist, and a government conspiracy resulting in the deaths of multiple characters, including a reclusive rock star played by Chris Pine. That ridiculousness recaptured the tone of the movie while expanding on its scope. Not every joke landed but enough did to make it feel like a worthy successor. That season also benefitted from the sheer excitement and goodwill of the fans who had been hoping for a follow-up for almost 15 years, along with the central absurdity of clearly middle-aged actors playing high schoolers.
The newest season, subtitled Ten Years Later, was always going to be a tougher sell, simply because the reunion had already happened. Its premise is a more natural fit than the first Netflix run, though, growing directly out of the scene in the movie where they plan to meet up back at camp ten years later. That puts this in 1991, and although the show has some good jokes and sight gags tied into that era—Paul Rudd steals almost every scene he’s in solely because of his perfectly over-the-top grunge get-up—leaving the ‘80s robs the show of some of its nostalgic spirit.
A bigger issue is that the comedy just doesn’t work as well this time. It repeats too much from the last season, from Michael Showalter’s Ronald Reagan impression playing a major role, to Banks essentially existing in her own separate show. Getting a closer glimpse at their rich rivals at Camp Tigerclaw in the last season expanded the world of the show in a way that made sense, and introduced a number of new performers who fit perfectly, including Kristen Wiig, Josh Charles and Rich Sommer. Returning to Camp Tigerclaw in this series just feels like redoing the same jokes, and all in the service of an already unnecessarily complicated plot.
It’s not a complete bust. The nature of this kind of comedy means the tone and quality can swing dramatically from scene to scene, and that regularly happens here. A total clunker might be followed up with one of your favorite jokes of the entire series so far. The performers are all as game as ever, no matter how weak the material is. Just as First Day of Camp added some great new players to the team, Ten Years Later smartly introduces John Early, Sarah Burns and Adam Scott, who replaces the too-busy Bradley Cooper as returning character Ben.
The closest this series gets to the specific parody of the original comes in the storyline that involves Burns and fellow newcomer Mark Feuerstein. It’s a riff on a very ‘90s style of romantic comedy, with Feuerstein as a hard-charging stock broker, Burns as his boho artist girlfriend who loves Greenwich Village and fears marriage, and the returning Zak Orth as her slacker best friend who realizes he loves her. It’s like a mash-up of creator David Wain’s film They Came Together with Wet Hot American Summer, but steeped in the movie Manhattan of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, and it’s one of the more consistently enjoyable storylines throughout the new season. Feuerstein and Burns weren’t in the movie or first season, but are revealed to have been there at camp all along, often just off-screen in memorable scenes, and that running joke, combined with their story, makes them two of the more valuable ensemble members, despite being first-timers.
The biggest highlight of the whole season, though, is Ken Marino’s Victor Pulak. This is the closest the show gets to genuine pathos, and yet it’s also perhaps the most absurd of its many storylines. Pulak’s quest to finally get laid continues into his mid-20s, and eventually incorporates Wain’s and Lake Bell’s characters from last season for a genuinely surprising conclusion that includes perhaps the funniest single line of the entire show.
If you want to break it down in detail, there are a lot of problems with this season. It retreads too much familiar territory. It devotes too much time to non-starter storylines that are silly without actually being funny. It continues to ask us to care about Coop and Katie’s romantic issues. It doesn’t do enough with Rudd. It doubles down on the Reagan business, bringing in Michael Ian Black as George H. W. Bush. A lot of this is genuinely funny, but not as often or consistently as the movie or First Day of Camp.
At its worst, Ten Years Later is like a friend straining too hard to be funny. You still like them, and appreciate their company, but they can just seem a little too desperate at times. At its best it’s every bit the equal of the movie or First Day of Camp. Most of the time it falls somewhere in between. Really, though, this is the kind of thing where you probably already knew if you’re going to watch it or not before you even started reading this review. It is exactly what you expect, but probably not as funny as you hoped it would be.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games, comedy and wrestling sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.