HBO’s eight-episode comedy Camping, adapted from the Julia Davis British series of the same name by Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner, feels like the kind of series designed to ensure that we hate every single character on it so that the final episode can somehow redeem the irredeemable. Based on the pilot episode, I’m not sure there’s a shovel, backhoe, or an oil drill big enough to dig these characters out of that hole.
Jennifer Garner stars as Kathryn McSorley-Jodell, who is hosting a camping trip for the birthday of her husband, Walt (David Tennant). If Kathryn were a supervillain, her name would be Type A. She is awful, an unbearably pushy, painfully anal-retentive taskmaster who endeavors to plan a camping trip among lifelong friends down to the minute, who rushes friends to finish their meals so they can stay on schedule, and who demands eye contact with a sister-in-law who doesn’t like her. Her husband is an emasculated pushover, and they haven’t had sex for two years because of what is apparently a series of made-up conditions Kathryn diagnoses herself with (“Would you like me to use my hand,” she offers her dejected husband half-heartedly). Every second the show spends with her is agonizing.
I love Jennifer Garner. I hate this character, and to be fair, she is meant to be loathed. It’s like Girls in a way, where every character is meant to be offputting and obnoxious, but with Girls, there was at least the prospect that they might one day become better people. These characters are middle-aged, and that prospect is dim, at best.
To be sure, there’s a lot of talent involved, although it’s wasted on terrible intentionally unlikable characters. Ione Skye plays Kathryn’s mousy sister, Carleen, while This Is Us’ Chris Sullivan plays her lazy grouch of a deadbeat husband (“I drove,” Carleen says, “because Joe always says, ‘It’s much more trying for the person in the passenger’s seat.’”) Brett Gelman plays Walt’s brother, George, and Gelman’s real-life wife Janicza Bravo plays his wife, Nina-Joy, and so far, they are the least obnoxious characters. George is an overly gregarious drunk, while Nina-Joy seems to be the only character who understands how awful everyone is but also the character with the least amount of personality.
Janice (Juliette Lewis), the new girlfriend of the recently divorced friend, Miguel (Arturo Del Puerto), is meant to be the antagonist to the already antagonizing Kathryn. She’s a free-spirit, hippie-type who confronts Kathryn about her pelvic floor and later takes her clothes off and goes skinny dipping during the bird-watching hike. When everyone follows her lead, Kathryn’s forehead veins nearly exploded, as her meticulously scheduled plans fall apart.
That’s almost certainly where much of the season’s comedic friction will come from — between Kathryn’s rigidness and Janice’s refusal to follow the rules — though it’s hard to describe a show with such unpleasant people as a “comedy.” There are some great lines, to be sure (“Carleen, do you have to narrate every fucking thing? It’s like living with David Attenborough,” Goerge says to his wife before yacking), but it’s almost impossible to get over how insufferable and entitled these characters are enough to appreciate the occasional witty line.
In fact, when Jennifer Garner and David Tennant signed onto Camping, I didn’t understand how that made any sense, and I briefly entertained the thought that Dunham was trying out a comedy better suited to the Garner and Tennant we know. That is decidedly not the case. I think Dunham took the gig as a challenge: Is it possible to make an audience hate Jennifer Garner and David Tennant?
To Dunham’s credit, she has succeeded wildly. Yet, in spite of how thoroughly unpleasant the series is, I am intrigued just enough to want to know the ultimate point of the series. I trust that there must have been something worthy of adaptation here, and I’m curious enough to watch to find out what. It’s the same reason I watched the entire run of Girls, though I am still waiting on that show’s redemptive moment.
Header Image Source: HBO