There is a brand new 8-episode season of Wet Hot American Summer on Netflix. It brings the franchise into the early ’90s, focusing on the long-awaited 10 year reunion the camp counselors all promised to gather for, so long ago. If you have stuck with the tale of Camp Firewood since David Wain and Michael Showalter’s WHAS film in 2001, then chances are you know what you’re getting into. Or at least you’ll think you do. This new season may push even the most loyal fans to the “WTF?” brink, but if you manage to hang in until the end, there are enough surprises to justify the whole journey. The thing is, those surprises feel like they’re from a different cinematic universe. In a good way. Spoilers to follow, in case you’re reading this but still plan to watch the show …
The previous iterations of Wet Hot American Summer (the movie, and the First Day Of Camp prequel series from 2015) played on the nostalgia of a very particular kind of ’80s teen summer coming-of-age movie, blown out to absurd proportions and stuffed with a huge number of comedic performances from people we know and love. The meta joke seems to be that Showalter and Wain can rally these folks again and again to gamely hammer every joke into the ground while pretending they’re 20-30 years younger than they really are. It’s so much fun, they even attract new faces to add to the mix each time — Adam Scott, Alyssa Milano, and Jai Courtney join the fun this time around, in addition to a number of surprise returning characters from the prequel season. But the difference with the Ten Years Later concept is that … well, they aren’t teenagers anymore. I mean, obviously they never WERE teenagers, but even within the framework of Wet Hot American Summer having the central group of counselors return to Camp Firewood in their twenties opens up whole new storytelling possibilities. Rather than spoofing ’80s teen movies, or sticking to the obvious ensemble films where a bunch of high school friends return home and realize they aren’t where they thought they’d be in life, they can and do spoof almost any late ’80s/early ’90s adult genres.
The first few episodes have to do the legwork of reintroducing us to the characters at this point in their lives, and start laying the groundwork for each storyline surrounding them. Because basically each character is involved in their own genre. And the attention to detail, though impressive, may be off-putting to even the most die hard fans — not to mention the constant shifts in tone as they jump from one character to another. There are 3 distinct romance film tropes (none of which work out in the end), in addition to some John Grisham-esque conspiracy uncovering, some hidden bunker madness, a few presidents — and of course they still have to save the Camp. Again.
It doesn’t always work, at least at first. But as the season goes on, a couple of threads emerge that justify the entire endeavor: the hard-core Lethal Weapon/The Fugitive action romp starring Mitch, the Can of Vegetables, and the psycho-babysitter storyline surrounding McKinley (Michael Ian Black), Ben (Adam Scott), and Renata (Alyssa Milano). These feel so separate from everything Wet Hot America Summer has ever been in the past, and in fact they sort of take place on the fringes of even this new season. But they also best demonstrate the comedic possibilities open to the cast now that they don’t have to pretend to be teenagers stuck at a camp.
The real surprise is the babysitter storyline: Ben hires Renata to join them for the reunion to take care of their infant daughter, so he and McKinley can have fun and not worry. But McKinley has a bad feeling about Renata — though every time he tries to prove she’s crazy, everything gets flipped on its head and he looks like a fool. The thing about WHAS is that it manages to be both meta-aware and still earnest, both commenting on the rules of the genre while also playing them straight. And so McKinley alienates Ben and everyone else in his quest to prove that Renata is psychotic, only to have played into her hands perfectly. Now that no one will believe him, she can proceed to take everything that’s his.
It is a dark, twisted, and well-executed little psychological thriller in the midst of all the usual Camp Firewood chaos that leads up to a hysterical fight sequence and a moment of true consequence — they kill Renata. Then formulate their gruesome plan for how to dispose of the body (sprinkling her teeth along the highway and burning her torso stand out). Only to discover, during the grand climactic reveal that everything the camp had gone through that day was because Ronald Reagan and George Bush the senior wanted to teach them all a lesson (just roll with it…), that Renata was an actress. They killed an innocent woman for no reason.
So the final episode keeps going, following up with a group dinner at a fancy new restaurant. And as everyone toasts and acts happy, the camera catches McKinley and Ben in the back, staring ahead blankly. Shell-shocked. It’s such a tight little moment, the weight of all that they’ve been through and will have to continue to live with, and the fact that nobody else is even aware of it. If I was on the fence in the early episodes because the focus seemed to be all over the map, this one shot sold me on what Wet Hot American Summer can do with adult storylines. Well, this and Can of Vegetables jumping off a waterfall.