While the first Netflix series, subtitled First Day of Camp, subverted the whole idea of a quote-unquote “reboot” by setting the action before the original (which took place on the last day of camp), this new one takes place ten years later during an actual reunion at Camp Firewood, in 1991. It’s still a ridiculous premise, given that the returning cast, all of whom are in their 40s, are playing 26-year-olds, but it’s one the show is well-aware of. Almost too much so—in the first series, creators David Wain and Michael Showalter were content to let the ridiculousness of the premise speak for itself. Here, they’ve opted to hit us over the head with it.
In the first episode, we catch up with the old gang: Katie (Marguerite Moreau) is an fashion executive, Coop (Michael Showalter) is about to publish his first novel, Lindsay (Elizabeth Banks) is still a broadcast journalist, hungry for a big story, Susie (Amy Poehler) is a big shot Hollywood producer, Neil (Joe Lo Truglio) and Victor (Ken Marino) are working behind the bar at a very 90s dance club, Andy (Paul Rudd) is a goateed burnout and McKinley (Michael Ian Black) and Ben are married with a child. (Ben, if you recall, was played by Bradley Cooper in the movie and prequel; now, he’s played by Adam Scott. The difference is hilariously explained away as the result of Ben’s nose surgery.)
Even the more minor characters return for their fair share of screen time, not to mention the regulars from the first series, like Jason Schwartzman, Chris Pine, Lake Bell, Wain himself, the trio of frenemies from Camp Tigerclaw, plus the habitual scene-stealers Kristen Wiig and John Early, who reprises his role as Ultimate Theater Kid, Logan. As if there wasn’t enough material here for eight half-hour episodes, the show also introduces a handful of new characters and revives an absurd subplot about Ronald Reagan (Showalter, in heavy makeup) attempting to destroy the camp, this time with the aid of his successor, President Bush (Ian Black, with glasses and a perfectly hackneyed H.W. accent).
Of course, the overstuffed, tangential, improvisatory-seeming, “let’s just see where this thing goes” plotting is all part of the shtick, and has been since the days of Stella. As Jen Chaney put it in Vulture, for this crew, “nothing is ever too much or too random to make its way on screen.” Their stories hum along for the first act or two until they’re abruptly derailed by, say, an ex-Nazi doctor or a grandiose psychological experiment; the creators seem to structure these ramped up inciting incidents and extremely quick, overdetermined resolutions as a way of poking fun at the artifice of narrative structure in general.
Ultimately, this tack is both Wet Hot American Summer’s defining strength and fatal flaw—particularly in this latest series, which, while enjoyable, is far more uneven than its predecessor. Criticisms aside, though, bingeing Ten Years Later, I was struck by how similar my reactions—most of which involved me mouthing in bewilderment the truncated refrain “What the...”—were to another show I’ve been watching lately: Twin Peaks: The Return.
After all, Cheney’s assessment of Wet Hot American Summer could just as well apply to Lynch’s Showtime reboot: nothing is ever too much or too random to make its way on screen there, either. Like Wain and Showalter, Lynch is not enslaved to his original material; nor does he feel inclined to give the people what they think they want—that is, a new season of the old Twin Peaks. Plus, there are enough new characters on The Return to fill up a few columns on its Wikipedia cast page.
Both shows could give two shits regarding our expectations for something resembling a standard plot. They are comfortable not making sense, to the point that they actually kind of make sense. I only have a vague idea of what’s really going on in Twin Peaks—something about three Coopers? The underlying after-effects of the A-bomb on the American psyche?—just like I only had a threadbare idea of why anyone was doing what they were doing in Ten Years Later. But that’s not really the reason you watch. Or, rather it is precisely the reason you watch: you watch because you don’t have to care as much about all that stuff, which frees you up to enjoy all the other stuff orbiting around it. I experienced the same feeling of bemused surprise watching Kristen Wiig harmonize with herself at Camp Tigerclaw, or Showalter’s Reagan pissing and shitting all over a model of an aquatic center, that I felt watching Andy and Lucy’s charade about buying a new chair, or Michael Cera’s Brando-esque character chatting with Sherriff Truman for a few minutes near his motorcycle. This feeling—that a director is doing something just to do it, because it’s cool or funny or random—is rare these days. Even on great, prestige-y shows like Mad Men or Veep, you’re under the impression that every scene is serving a larger purpose. Watching Ten Years Later and Twin Peaks, you get the sense that you are in the hands of a creator confident and able enough to play by their own narrative rules, which may be obvious in novels and music but is perhaps less so in mainstream film and TV.
There’s another reason for their likeness, too, and that’s a sort of hyper-specific non-specificity. Yes, every satire is rooted in this concept: tropes are tropes because they are non-specific. But it’s the way Lynch and Wain play with these tropes that make them special. Think of one of the first scenes in Ten Years Later, when Katie, as the textbook “executive” just points at a mock-up of a magazine cover and starts by saying “this here, that there...” etc, before the directives devolve into her randomly pointing at the page and spewing demonstrative pronouns. And think about Lynch’s classic coffee motif—it’s an unspecific cop trope pushed to a uniquely specific extreme. To paraphrase Leftovers showrunner Damon Lindelof on Twin Peaks, many of Lynch’s scenes function the way this motif does: they keep going, and going, and going until they eventually transcend themselves. Once again, this could equally apply to a Wet Hot American Summer bit, like the famous “trip into town” in the original and a scene in Ten Years Later, where one character after another leaves a satirically bougie house party and proceeds to knock down a champagne tower on the way out.
It’s interesting to note, in the broader context of television's reboot-everything ethos, one more similarity between the two shows: both are second-generation reboots (if you remember, Twin Peaks also had an after-the-fact prequel, Fire Walk With Me). Thus, Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later and Twin Peaks: The Return are iterative in a way that, say, the Gilmore Girls reboot was not, riffing on themselves and becoming something else in the process. Perhaps that's why these two reboots have faired better than most: the iterative nature of the franchises is part and parcel to the iterave fabric of the shows themselves.