tv review

Camping Is a Maddening, Amusing Trip

Husband Walt (David Tennant) and wife Kathryn (Jennifer Garner), clearly having the time of their lives in Camping. Photo: Anne Marie Fox/HBO

On Girls, executive producers Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner portrayed and sometimes slyly mocked myopic millenials living in Brooklyn. On Camping, their second HBO series, they again turn their focus on self-involved personalities, but this time, those narcissists are Gen-Xers confronting various forms of midlife crises.

As you might imagine based on that description, your mileage may vary with regard to how much you can tolerate Camping. The show, based on a British series of the same name, is set during a long weekend camping trip where much unpleasantness ensues because everyone on said camping trip is kind of a nightmare. The primary nightmare — the Nightmare in Chief, if you will — is Kathryn McSorley-Joddell, played with high uptight energy by Jennifer Garner. This is a woman so high-maintenance she makes Sally Albright in When Harry Met Sally… seem to have a maintenance-deficit. Seriously, Madeline Martha MacKenzie on Big Little Lies is super-chill by comparison.

It’s immediately apparent why Garner was cast in this role: Almost any other actress in the same part would seem like a completely irredeemable bitch. But Garner is so inherently appealing that even when she’s being awful — which is pretty much all the time on this show — she still comes across as laughably maddening as opposed to downright odious.

Kathryn is your classic tightly wound, hyper-scheduled, overprotective, overbearing wife and mother who has orchestrated this trip to the great outdoors to celebrate the 45th birthday of her husband, Walter (David Tennant in nerdy pushover mode). Really, though, she’s organized it to make herself seem like the best, most thoughtful woman who has ever lived.

Within the first few minutes of the first episode, which airs Sunday, her meticulously crafted plans start to unspool. First, her sister Carleen (Ione Skye) shows up with her partner, Joe (Chris Sullivan of This is Us), and their moody teenage daughter Sol (Cheyenne Haynes) even though Kathryn’s e-vite, as she primly notes, specifically stated that no kids were allowed. (Orvis, her eight-year-old son with Walt, is obviously an exception.) Walt’s friend George (Brett Gellman) arrives with his wife Nina-Joy (actress and filmmaker Janicza Bravo, also Gellman’s real-life wife), who rejects Kathryn’s attempts to reconcile in the wake of an initially unexplained rift. And then there’s Miguel (Arturo Del Puerto), who was supposed to come with his wife but lands at the campsite with Jandice (Juliette Lewis), his new girlfriend, who immediately rubs Kathryn the wrong way since she didn’t even realize Miguel and his spouse, an alleged friend, were planning to divorce. Jandice is one of the worst things that could happen to Kathryn’s trip, but Lewis as Jandice is one of the best things that happens to Camping. As a sexually adventurous, bohemian, free spirit who seemingly carries around an entire pharmacy in her purse, Lewis slips into the role as enthusiastically as Jandice whips off her clothes to go skinny dipping.

Sadly, not everything about Camping is quite as good a fit. After watching the four episodes provided to critics in advance, it’s clear that all these people are going to do is find new ways to act like total jerks. Dunham and Konner, who co-wrote the first two episodes (which Konner also directed), bring the same pithy, conflict-driven sensibility to this series as they brought to Girls. The difference is that Girls tracks characters who are moving through their twenties, an age when many people have blinders on and are figuring out how necessary it is to remove them. Even when Hannah, Marnie, Jessa, and Shoshanna were the worst, you still got the sense that maybe, maybe, they could learn how to be better. They might not fully succeed — wherever she is right now, I’m certain Marnie is on a direct path toward becoming a Kathryn McSorley-Joddell — but since they were young, it was possible to forgive some of their selfish behavior.

The bickering contempo-yuppies of Camping are not young. They are old enough to know how to be considerate, take a deep breath and calm down during an argument, or hold their tongues when tempted to say something rude. Most of them choose not to, which can lead to some amusing moments but ultimately doesn’t give the show much of a place to go story-wise.
While Konner, Dunham, and their fellow writers and directors made an effort to expose the vulnerabilities in the girls of Girls, the first half of Camping’s first season gives the distinct impression that these insufferable people are going to continue being insufferable until the end of time.

Konner and Dunham still display a real knack for writing sharp, culturally attuned dialogue, though. I burst out laughing in the first episode when Walt plays a game of Head’s Up with his son in which he tries, futilely, to suggest clues that will help Orvis coax the answer “William Hurt” out of his dad’s mouth. “I was in Children of a Lesser God and The Doctor,” Walt says, oblivious to how little any of that means to an eight-year-old. “I don’t know what you are,” Orvis says.

The fourth episode, written by the great Paula Pell, is the strongest of the initial batch because it gives Garner — who has a gift for the madcap she rarely gets to exhibit — permission to uncork Kathryn’s personality after Jandice accidentally gives her an Adderall instead of an Ambien. Jacked-up and unable to sleep, Garner becomes the physical embodiment of firing synapses, shimmying her shoulders and chatterboxing her way through a game of Three Truths and One Lie. “I feel like every cell in my body is on Dancing With the Stars,” Kathryn tells Walter at one point. “But there is no judge.” It’s impossible not to get a kick out her performance.

I just wish it were possible to get more of a consistent kick out of Camping, which boasts laugh-out-loud lines and enjoyably boisterous work from its cast, but too often, is grating instead of darkly funny. The difficult women and men on this comedy are supposed to be arrested in their development. But it’s hard to watch them and not wish they’d just start behaving like adults, fer Chrissakes.

Camping Is a Maddening, Amusing Trip