Everything about Camping is annoying and almost nothing is even remotely funny, with “Going to Town” somehow being even more insufferable than the premiere.
This recap of Camping Episode 2, “Going to Town”, contains spoilers. To read our thoughts on the previous episode, click these words.
Shortly after last week’s premiere of Camping on HBO, the show’s writer Lena Dunham responded to widespread criticism of the same by declaring, with her usual wisdom, that the expectation of Kathryn McSorley-Jodell (Jennifer Garner) to be “likeable” is, perhaps predictably, a sexist one. Nobody, she says, requires the same of male characters, which I would counter by pointing out that Kathryn’s husband, Walt (David Tennant), isn’t likable either. But no matter. The show’s second episode, “Going to Town”, makes all the contrary arguments for me.
During a game of flag football, Kathryn’s son, Orvis (Duncan Joiner), is lightly knocked over by Jandice (Juliette Lewis), which of course prompts a hysterical overreaction and a trip to a local hospital. Despite him repeatedly insisting that he’s fine, Kathryn nonetheless carries him inside, screaming for help and insisting on a full-body scan for various internal injuries. When the tireless doctor reiterates that he’s perfectly healthy – physically, at least – Kathryn checks herself in because her body is breaking down from the trauma of the ordeal.
This entire nauseating sequence is Camping in microcosm: Profoundly unfunny, deeply unsympathetic, and possessed of no insight, wit or intelligence. That Lena Dunham thinks sexism is to blame for nobody liking this character is almost as absurd as having written this character in the first place. What, exactly, is there to like?
Likability is not a requirement in fiction, of course, and its absence doesn’t make a character less interesting or realistic on its own. The problem with Camping is that nobody else is likeable either, and all anyone has to express is their own unlikeable traits. There’s nothing to these people beyond whatever makes them aggravating; every gag is built around them hating each other and themselves. Away from the hospital in “Going to Town”, the rest of the group hit a bar, where Joe (Chris Sullivan) makes an off-handed remark to Nina-Joy (Janicza Bravo) that she interprets as being racist. (He calls her “little chocolate”.) When Nina-Joy tells George (Brett Gelman) about this, he goes on a thoroughly embarrassing righteous tirade, “diagnosing” Joe as part of America’s on-going race war. I had to watch this sequence twice because I could scarcely believe it had happened. What are we supposed to feel here? Are we supposed to be right behind George, who compares Joe’s remark to being a member of the KKK? Or are we supposed to recognise the ridiculousness of George’s outburst and root for Joe, whose incredulity at the reaction suggests he’s as perplexed as I was?
This is the problem with trying to have one’s cake and eat it. Camping expects you to feel a certain way about its characters and then has them behave exclusively in a manner that provokes the opposite reaction. It’s indescribably irritating to watch. But beyond that it simply isn’t very good. It has nothing to say, provokes nothing but ire, and, perhaps most importantly for a sitcom, just isn’t funny. I’m not looking forward to the next item on Kathryn’s itinerary, and I can’t fathom a reason why anyone else would be either.