Camping airs Sundays on HBO.
The prickly protagonist of HBO’s Camping is in crisis mode from the moment we meet her. Played with twitchy anxiety by Jennifer Garner, Kathryn McSorley-Jodell is the kind of woman for whom everyday life triggers an unending stream of emergencies. Arriving early at the luxury campsite where she has planned a 45th birthday trip for her husband Walt (David Tennant) and a small circle of friends, Kathryn steals the foam mattresses from each tent and piles them high in her own because, as she explains, “hard surfaces wreak havoc on my pelvic floor.” She’s not someone I’d want to spend eight minutes with, let alone eight episodes.
Adapted from a British series of the same name by Girls dream team Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner, Camping seems destined to spark yet another debate about patently “unlikable” female protagonists. That’s too bad, especially after so many years of TV shows about brooding dude antiheroes. But the aptly dubbed Kathryn McSorley-Jodell — even the name is exhausting — doesn’t make the case for fascinating unlikability. She isn’t just obnoxious; she’s uninteresting, and the same goes for the motley assortment of pals forced to tolerate her for what turns out to be a very long weekend.
The first scene of the premiere finds Kathryn leaping up and down in slow motion to the tune of “Daydream,” her arms spread wide and her grin even wider against an idyllic blue sky — a video, it turns out, that Walt is recording for his wife’s Instagram profile. (It’s “cresting 11,000 followers,” she later boasts.) But the welcome promise of a goofy, loose and slightly unhinged Jennifer Garner quickly slams up against the reality of the character, who is drawn in such cartoonishly loopy strokes that she’s more like a novice improv warm-up than a real person. Garner, who hasn’t carried a TV show since Alias, the early-aughts spy series that made her famous, will surely be a draw for many viewers, but she’s woefully miscast in a role that’s somehow both underwritten and overwrought.
Ditto the friends who trek up to the campsite, outside Los Angeles, to celebrate Walt’s birthday — each couple more eccentric than the next. There’s Walt’s best friend George (Brett Gelman), a sentient bear hug who loves his best friend almost as much as he adores his wife Nina-Joy (filmmaker Janicza Bravo, Gelman’s real-life spouse). There’s Kathryn’s mousy sister Carleen (Ione Skye), who arrives with her 30-days-sober boyfriend (Chris Sullivan) and his moody teenage daughter (Cheyenne Haynes). Finally, we meet Miguel (Arturo Del Puerto), fresh off a separation and infatuated with his new squeeze, Jandice (Juliette Lewis), a free spirit who rattles Kathryn with her refusal to stick to the hostess’ carefully laid plans.
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Camping’s fishbowl premise leaves viewers grasping for markers of who these people are in the context of their regular lives. Without that grounding, the series careens from one low-stakes, wackier-than-thou scenario to the next: Kathryn thinks Miguel is a bear and shoots him with a BB gun! On a trip to town, Miguel and Jandice have sex in a store’s dressing room! Kathryn’s young son falls to the ground in a game of tackle football, and she insists they take him to the hospital! Jandice peels off her clothes and runs into the water — on a day Kathryn hasn’t designated for swimming, no less!
Most of the drama stems from Kathryn’s brittle relationships with pretty much everyone else. She’s recently had a falling-out with Nina-Joy, her former best friend, and on a fishing jaunt with the boys, the ever-patient Walt confesses he and his wife haven’t gotten busy in two years. She claims chronic pain from a hysterectomy makes sex too uncomfortable, although Walt reminds her that the doctor long ago cleared them for takeoff. And the unexpected arrival of Jandice tosses a whole tool bag full of wrenches in the machinery of Kathryn’s punctilious schedule. (Lewis and Bridget Everett, who has a recurring role as the cheerily rugged proprietor of the campsite, are the only performers whose natural warmth and humor made the show’s first four episodes bearable for me.)
Camping may have been a fun exercise for its writers and actors, but I found it a humorless, charmless slog. The plot lacks tension, the writing underwhelms and the characters simply ring false; there are few insights to be found in their squabbles and familiar midlife-crisis signposts. Say what you will about Hannah Horvath, the notoriously exasperating leading lady of Girls, but no matter how far she strayed from the path of propriety, she was always fascinating to watch — charismatic, contradictory and, above all, genuinely funny. I wish I could say the same for Kathryn McSorley-Jodell and her beleaguered buddies.
Camping is a continuation of Dunham and Konner’s thematic preoccupation with difficult characters, particularly women; in the end, it seems more like they’re making a point than a TV show that people might enjoy watching. Worst of all, Camping wastes so much talent: Dunham and Konner got their HBO money and they got their A-list stars, and this is the best they could do with them? Thankfully, unlike Kathryn’s hostage-guests, it’s pretty easy for the viewer to cut this trip short.