HBO’s new sitcom Camping has a great cast and a solid writing team, but it’s tortuously unfunny and thus far not a trip worth taking.
I can say one thing for Camping: It’s very good at simulating a trip that you don’t want to be on. I’m not entirely sure that’s the point of the new HBO sitcom, but then again, what else could the point possibly be, with characters as insufferable and jokes as flat as those featured in the pilot?
Jennifer Garner plays Kathryn, a thoroughly neurotic woman with a litany of real and imagined ailments who can only have fun if it comes accompanied with a rigorous, militaristic itinerary. In short, then, someone you wouldn’t want to spend a moment with, let alone be married to, which is bad news for Walt (David Tennant), her long-suffering nebbish husband. Luckily, perhaps thanks to Kathryn’s pelvic floor issues, the couple don’t have sex, although they must have done at one point to create their oddly-named offspring, Orvis (Duncan Joiner), whom Kathryn treats as though he’s liable to snap in half at any moment.
Kathryn has an Instagram account which is almost a character in itself; in the opening scene of the Camping pilot, she’s leaping up and down in slow-motion so that Walt can snapshot her feigned, mid-air contentment. This is the joke, of course – Kathryn wants to stage the perfect social media life so that people don’t figure out she’s deeply unhappy and, frankly, quite batty in her real one.
With this premise Camping has the supplies laid out for a contemporary social satire that feels topical in the age of reality-star presidents and a terrifyingly metastasizing celebrity culture. But unfortunately the writers, Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner of Girls, who adapted Camping from a same-named British series, forgot to pack any humour or insight. Or, for that matter, any characters; Kathryn’s real-life friends feel as virtual as her online ones.
Among these tokenistic bundles of quirks are Kathryn’s sister Carleen (Ione Skye) and her estranged best friend, Nina-Joy (Janicza Bravo), their partners (Chris Sullivan and Brett Gelman), and another friend, Miguel (Arturo del Puerto), who is recently separated from his wife and has arrived on the trip in the California wilds with his new squeeze, Jandice (Juliette Lewis). This, needless to say, upsets the group dynamic, especially since Jandice, a reiki healing and artisanal cheese-making hippie free-spirit, is the amped-up opposite of Kathryn, the group’s nominal leader.
The other joke in Camping is that nobody likes Kathryn, presumably for several perfectly acceptable reasons, but this can’t work comedically because the show evidently doesn’t like her either. She’s given no redeeming qualities to offset her social obliviousness, hypochondria, or self-dramatizing, and it likewise displays no interesting in exploring what made her so passive-aggressively judgemental. If we’re supposed to feel sorry for her I missed any evidence to support that idea, so the only conclusion to draw is that Kathryn herself is the joke, as opposed to being part of it or in on it. And the joke isn’t funny.