HBO’s new half-hour series Camping is the latest in a string of television comedies focusing on terrible people, something that has found varying degrees of success in recent years. Some, like You’re the Worst or It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia or Curb Your Enthusiasm, manage to pull off the amazing feat of getting us to like and laugh along with some truly awful people. Others, like Togetherness or Girls, miss the mark (I recognize that a lot of people loved Girls; I was not one of them. Editor’s Note: Me neither).
The premise of Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner’s series (based on a UK show of the same name) is that severely uptight Kathryn McSorley-Jodell (Jennifer Garner) drags a group of her friends on a rigidly planned camping trip to celebrate her husband’s (David Tennant) 45th birthday. It must be said: the cast is lights out. In addition to Garner and Tennant, the supporting cast boasts Brett Gelman, Juliette Lewis, Ione Skye, and Chris Sullivan, so it’s certainly not lacking for talent. Lewis, in particular, steals the show as the free-spirited energy healer Jandice, and most of the laughs the show earned came thanks to her.
There are also some guest stars (Bridget Everett and Busy Philipps) who pop up and keep adding to the star power and potential humor. But there’s the issue — the potential for humor is all over this show, but Camping hardly ever gets there.
The biggest problem is that it becomes obvious very quickly that everyone will gravitate toward the crazy hippie girl because they can only take so much of the uptight shrew, and that’s where the show really loses the thread. A neurotic, uptight wife and mother that no one really likes and we’re all supposed to laugh at? Boy, that’s a character who feels new and different! Wherever did they come up with that?!
That right there may be enough to turn some viewers off in the first episode. While the instinct was definitely there, I stuck around through the other three episodes given to critics to see if perhaps the show would do something with Kathryn that felt surprising or fresh. But either they’re saving that for the latter half of the eight-episode season, or it’s not coming at all. The writers try to humanize Kathryn by giving her a backstory of scary health issues to try to explain her neuroses and insecurity, but it’s not enough. She’s insufferable, and not in that funny way some TV characters manage to pull off. One might think Garner, who is so naturally winsome, could manage to salvage something likable out of Kathryn, but it never comes.
It truly leaves one wondering: What is the point of this show? If it’s not laughs or personal growth, is it just a slice-of-life comedy about unlikable people? That’s not enough, especially in this overcrowded TV landscape. Plus, who has the patience to wait half a season or more before finding characters they want to stay with on this journey? Despite high hopes for this combination of Dunham’s writing talent and Garner’s charisma, there just isn’t enough over the first four episodes to really make this a comedy worth tuning into. You can skip this Camping trip.
Camping premieres Sunday, October 14th on HBO