And so we come to the third installment of Michael Showalter and David Wain's "Wet Hot American Summer," the summer-camp series inaugurated back in 2001 with a theatrical film flop later turned cult classic. That movie, set on the last day of camp 1981, with teenage counselors played by actors even then too old for their parts, was followed in 2015 by an eight-episode Netflix series set two months before the events of the film – on the first day of camp – but with the actors 14 years older.
That should give you an idea of the sort of reality we’re dealing with here. There is also a talking can of vegetables.
The new installment, "Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later," which premieres Friday on Netflix, is again an eight-episode series, directed as before by Wain and written by Wain and Showalter (recently the director of “The Big Sick”), among others. As the first film was a romp through early ’80s camp comedies and the second had fun with prequels, the new film plays upon reunion films, with their mix of memory and desire, success stories and tales of failure, regrets and redemptions. As before, it’s a knockabout mix of film styles and references, developed relationships and random inspirations; ridiculous and gross and ironic and somehow moving by turns, and sometimes all at once, it’s a takeoff, but not a takedown.
A massive supergroup of comic talent holds the strands together, including Wain and Showalter, Amy Poehler, Chris Meloni, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Rudd, Janeane Garofalo, Lake Bell, Kristen Wiig, John Early, Joe Lo Truglio, H. Jon Benjamin, Josh Charles, Molly Shannon, Chris Pine, Jason Schwartzman, Mark Feuerstein, Ken Marino, Michael Ian Black, Alyssa Milano, Marlo Thomas, Paul Scheer and Adam Scott (subbing for Bradley Cooper).
They don’t exactly play straight, but they play straight enough to make you feel their pleasure and their pain, to find compelling the most absurd of their predicaments.
As Andy, the designated bad boy and former King of Camp Firewood, Rudd turns up dressed, essentially, as Matt Dillon's character from "Singles"; Susie (Poehler), the theater nerd, is now a Hollywood "producer slash executive producer"; and Showalter's Coop, vaguely the central character, is now an author struggling to find an ending to his book, which his editor (Melanie Lynskey) says has "the potential to be a once-in-a-generation memoir that captures the zeitgeist of the early '90s."
It is a mock action film full of actual action. (There is a lot of impressive stunt work.) It is a conspiracy thriller, including past, present and future presidents. It is a “crazy nanny” movie of the sort popular in its time.
It is also a parody of romantic comedy that works, if you let it, as a romantic comedy. Lines like "How am I supposed to write an ending to a story that I'm still living" and "Don't you ask me to jump if you're not going to be there to catch me" are perfect, perfectly effective pastiches of the sentimental comedies of the time. When J.J. (Zak Orth), who has been clerking at an "alternative video store," refuses to rent "When Harry Met Sally…" to a customer, saying, "I have a moral obligation to prevent the further decay of romantic expectations provided by the fallacy perpetuated by Hollywood romantic comedies," that is a critique of the genre, right out of the genre.
I don’t want to lay too much weight on the series. There are jokes about urination and excretion and sex. There are jokes whose only purpose is to draw your attention to the fact that a joke is being made about something from the early ’90s — B. Dalton Booksellers, in-line skates, slackers (“like that movie that just came out five weeks ago”).
And yet it's not too much to say that this is a piece about the passage of time – because, literally, it is. A movie about a reunion that is itself a reunion. It is poignant not quite in spite of itself. There is a moment near the end, almost too brief to register – and oddly breathtaking— when a group shot from the 2001 film, when actors now pushing 50 were the age of the characters they’re playing here, is inserted into the action. I don't think it’s been put there to be funny, only lovely: We were young and beautiful in another world.
But they're still looking good in this one.
‘Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later’
When: Anytime, starting Friday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd