Kathryn (Jennifer Garner) wants a perfect birthday for her husband Walt (David Tennant), no matter the cost. This leads her to organize a camping trip for all of their friends. By organize, I mean she plans every minute of every day, sucking the joy from those around her. Much like it’s protagonist, “Camping” tries so hard to be great. Unfortunately, just like it’s protagonist, “Camping” falls fatefully far from perfection. The show blows past the line between funny and mean. “Camping” hates its protagonist, not to mention most of its other characters. The actors do their best to mine laughs from shrill character traits. However, one can’t do much with the repellant script.
Jennifer Garner remains one of our most underrated actresses. She attacks roles with a commitment and precision that’s often underutilized. Her performance in “Juno” is an absolute stunner that undermines any attempts to turn her Vanessa into a cliche. She brings depth to the badass agent at the center of “Alias,” by J.J. Abrams. However, that intensity that works so well when harnessed correctly can misfire in the wrong hands. In “Camping,” Garner seriously misfires. Her over-planned Kathryn reads as a hatefully rigid harpy that whose insistence on bringing up conflict at any moment borders on Tourettes outbursts. While Garner brings great energy to her character, the show’s utter disdain for her can’t be shaken. Kathryn isn’t a character, she’s a diatribe against a certain female stereotype.
No one else gets much of a chance to deepen their characters outside of their (admittedly thin) list of traits. David Tennant nerds out with charming enthusiasm, but has almost nothing to do as birthday boy Walt. Both Brett Gelman and Janicza Bravo are given little to do than stare side-eyed at Garner’s Kathryn as she keeps them from having fun. It’s a joy to see Ione Skye acting again. However, she’s given a non-starter of a character as Carleen, Kathryn’s anxious sister. Chris Sullivan mopes around as Joe, a recovering drug addict that’s thrown into the mix with little reason. All in all, the ensemble doesn’t help round out the poor story.
The only two performers who shine with their limited material are Juliette Lewis and Bridget Everett. Lewis squeals all of her lines with manic glee as Jandice, the new girlfriend of the recently divorced Miguel (Arturo Del Puerto). All of the things Jandice does are ripped from the “free spirit hippie” archetype. She swims naked in the lake, talks about drug and sex candidly and possesses an inability to read a room. However, it’s hard not to get caught up in Lewis’ enthusiasm. Likewise, Bridget Everett gets only one joke to play as Harry, the owner of the campground. The show wants us to laugh simply at the fact that she’s a laid back lesbian. Everett engages us enough as a talented performer who finds the comedy in any line she gets her hands on. One wonders why both she and Lewis aren’t getting more challenging material to work with.
The show comes highly anticipated as the latest collaboration between Jenni Konner and Lena Dunham. However, this show strays far from the quality that made “Girls” a cultural sensation. In many ways, it feels like a lob or a writing exercise. It’s a first draft of a logline that somehow found itself attached to talented actors and into production. Konner and Dunham have only thinly sketched out what brings these characters together. The conflicts all stem from their seemingly searing hatred of their protagonist. The show exhibits little promise to bloom into something interesting or unique. All in all, “Camping” should go back out to the woods and stay there.