The original “Wet Hot American Summer” movie proved just too weird for audiences, grossing barely a quarter million dollars in 2001. However, this parody of ’80s summer camp movies later became a cult hit on video.
Sixteen years later, the Netflix follow-up series, “Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later,” may also take some time to fully appreciate. But with each episode, it becomes easier to surrender to the absurdity of the proceedings. (The eight episodes premiere Friday, Aug. 4.)
Most of the cast returns from both the original movie and Netflix’s 2015 prequel, “First Day of Camp,” including Kansas City’s Paul Rudd. So do Elizabeth Banks, Amy Poehler, Josh Charles, Lake Bell, Molly Shannon and a sprawling collage of familiar faces. It’s satisfying to see performers who are now big movie stars return to invest wholeheartedly in this streaming silliness.
Rudd’s character, Andy, arrives back at Camp Firewood in the second episode. He’s now sporting stringy hair and a goatee like a Seattle grunge rocker — perfect, considering the setting is 1991. Andy is still disaffected and borderline amoral. But he’s no longer the coolest kid, having been challenged by teen upstart Deegs (Skyler Gisondo of “Vacation”). This leads to a hilarious King of Camp Challenge that somehow combines the atmosphere of “Mad Max: Fury Road” with potato sack races.
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“The Hand That Rocks the Cradle,” “All the President’s Men” and “The X-Files” also factor into the plot and the lampooning from writer/director David Wain and writer/star Michael Showalter (who plays the lovestruck nice guy Coop, wearing an even less flattering shag hairstyle).
Their plot juggles so many ludicrous storylines that it might as well be parodying soap operas. What other project can weave in a half-cyborg jam band guitarist (Chris Pine), vindictive former President Ronald Reagan (also Showalter) and a sentient can of mixed vegetables (voiced by H. Jon Benjamin of “Bob’s Burgers”)?
Two tenacious gags help unite this ill-mannered zaniness. The series takes advantage of its time frame, with garish visual reminders and spoken references to the George H.W. Bush era (he’s a character here, too). At one point, a counselor admits she’s “being a total slacker.” Poehler chimes in, “Like that movie that came out five weeks ago?”
The series also capitalizes on the stars playing people in their 20s when most are really in their 40s. The lone major cast member to not reappear is Bradley Cooper, whose preppy, outed Ben is now played by Adam Scott. This change is addressed from the outset when Ben confesses to his boyfriend (Michael Ian Black) that he’s afraid no one will recognize him since he got a nose job.
Too much exposition in the first two episodes (so many characters!) hinders the story from truly kicking in until a bizarre third installment, when the real clandestine conflicts take shape. New cast additions who make an impact include Alyssa Milano as a secretive nanny and Jai Courtney as a famous actor dating Poehler’s indie producer.
Wain (one of Rudd’s Big Slick Celebrity Weekend guests this year) and Showalter keep the story at arm’s length, never investing any genuine emotion in these cartoonish oddballs. And yet there is a certain nostalgia at work here. Loads of the actors experienced their debuts (or at least their breakthroughs) in the original film.
Not easy to label such a strange and vulgar series as “sentimental,” but that’s the case. It’s kind of like those summer camp experiences from youth: The good times leave more of an impression than the bad, boring or misguided ones.
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”