'Camping': TV Review

Fold up the tent and go home.
10/14/2018

Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner's unfunny HBO remake of a British series is headlined by a miscast Jennifer Garner.

Who takes Jennifer Garner and makes her a completely unlikable and joyless nag, annoying everyone around her?

Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner, coming off their rollicking success with Girls, do just such a thing in HBO's latest comedy, Camping.

Wow, does that not work. Nor does much else in Camping, but it all starts with miscasting Garner.

There's a quote attributed to both Dunham and Konner on the HBO website that reads, "We can't wait for the warmth and intelligence she'll bring to our central character." 

Having watched the first four episodes, I can state with confidence that the wait is ongoing (but in truth, who would spend another 30 minutes in hopes that Garner's character completely flip-flops into something else or that Camping, an endurance test of a bad idea lifted from a British series, eventually realizes whatever it is that it's seeking to realize?).

Garner play Kathryn, the least warm person you can find on a camping trip short of a bear. Kathryn is a whiner, she's mean and petty (neither of those in a funny way), she's self-centered, a control freak, a clueless helicopter mom and someone so oblivious to others and the vibe she gives off that "intelligence" is probably an even bigger misnomer than "warmth."

But here's the thing — you can't blame Garner for this. The character is as written. And if that's a wasted opportunity, it also extends to David Tennant as her husband Walt, a beleaguered, meek man celebrating his 45th birthday on a camping getaway that Kathryn overplanned and orchestrated to the last, chill-free detail. Also, Walt hasn't had sex with Kathryn in two years, and it doesn't appear that he's going to on this trip, either (though his iPad search history has a lot of porn on it). Tennant, like Walt, is left to...endure.

When we first meet Kathryn, she's agitated and checking in at the Brown Bear Lake camping site, run by Harry (Bridget Everett of Patti Cakes and Trainwreck), one of the few actors in Camping who manages to take what's given and make it come alive. Within seconds, we realize Kathryn is wound tight, but it's only, what, two minutes or so into the series when she steals everyone else's mattress because she has her own somewhat dubious medical issues. "Do you want me to have a dysfunctional pelvic floor the whole of your birthday weekend?" she snaps at Walt, who is forced to selfishly steal along with her.

When Kathryn's meek sister Carleen (Ione Skye) shows up, having driven a great distance, Kathryn wants to send her home, because not only did she bring her partner (Chris Sullivan), but also his daughter from a previous marriage, Sol (Cheyenne Haynes). And kids are not allowed, except, of course, for Kathryn's kid Orvis (Duncan Joiner), the most overprotected kid in small-screen history. "Blow your rape whistle if you hear mommy!" she yells when he goes missing for 10 seconds. That might have worked on paper, but in actuality it only works to make Kathryn more shrill and annoying, while her cruel treatment of Carleen leaves no road back to likability. To add to Garner's impossible role, Dunham and Konner make Kathryn Instagram-obsessed; even in 2018 that seems like a very tired trope.

The arrival of Jandice (Juliette Lewis) lights a small fire in Camping, because Lewis was born to play the free-spirited rule breaker whose own disdain for normalcy usually gets everyone else in trouble (as it does here, sometimes even with humorous results). Jandice clearly unnerves Kathryn, who has every moment of the camping trip scripted; that doesn't call for skinny-dipping, of course, which is what Jandice does. She gets everyone else into the lake behind her, mostly clothed, which leaves Kathryn to ridiculously and unbelievably yell, "There may be brain-eating amoebas in there! Let me remind you that none of you is wearing sunscreen!" And then this: "Guys! Eyes on me! I am the only certified lifeguard present!"

Having not seen the original British series of the same name, created by Julia Davis, I'm not sure that such a scene existed or if it was pulled off any better across the pond (the Brits do tend to get away with wackiness in the service of comedy better than Americans). But in HBO's Camping, it's just another far-fetched scene that doesn't work.

Unfortunately, nothing much does on this series. The casting comes off like it was just Dunham and Konner picking friends to fill out roles, which results in an across-the-board lack of chemistry (or much interest) as the story unfolds. And while Camping is indeed supposed to be a story of misery (because none of these people seem like campers, which is probably the central joke of the original series), making Walt's birthday weekend a torturous affair doesn't work if the humor that it's supposed to generate doesn't materialize. Watching becomes as big a slog for the viewer as getting through that ill-advised camping trip is for the characters.

Cast: Jennifer Garner, David Tennant, Juliette Lewis, Brett Gelman, Ione Skye, Chris Sullivan, Janicza Bravo, Arturo del Puerto, Bridget Everett, Cheyenne Haynes, Duncan Joiner
Created and written by: Lena Dunham, Jenni Konner, based on the British series by Julia Davis
Directed by: Jenni Konner
Premieres: Sunday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (HBO)