Entertainment » Television

Lena Dunham's HBO Comedy 'Camping,' Starring Jennifer Garner, is a Bad Trip

by Jason St. Amand
National News Editor
Saturday Oct 13, 2018

Over its six seasons, HBO's "Girls" earned its fair share of criticism and chief among them was that it featured a cast of "unlikeable characters." Lena Dunham, who co-created and stared in the show, played Hannah Horvath, who seemed to draw the most ire from haters. (Many also had trouble separating the real life Dunham from Hanna.)

Those who couldn't stand Hannah's self-absorbed, selfish and whiney ways will absolutely want to stay away from "Camping," which debuts Sunday on HBO. And those who did find something endearing about Hannah and "Girls" (like this writer) may also want to stay away from "Camping," which marks Dunham and her (ex) creative partner Jenni Konner's first TV project since launching "Girls."

Starring Jennifer Garner, "Camping" is based on a 2016 British series and consists of eight half-hour episodes. At its center, it shares the same kind of beating heart as "Girls" — about a group of friends who... probably don't actually like each other very much.

The new comedy follows Kathryn (Garner), an uber-organized, super-controlling and aggressive L.A. mom (who has 11,000 followers on Instagram!), planning a birthday camping weekend for her husband Walt (David Tennant). Along with their son Orvis (Duncan Joiner), Kathryn invites some friends and her sister Carleen (Ione Skye) and her family. Of course, this weekend getaway isn't going to go smoothly.

Over the four episodes provided for review, "Camping" finds Garner's Kathryn tested in every possible way. Her A-type personality often bumps up against the easy going mentality of those joining her for this trip, including Miguel (Arturo Del Puerto), who recently separated from his wife, and his new girlfriend Jandice (Juliette Lewis) a free-spirited woman who is new to the group. When Jandice convinces the gang to go skinny-dipping into a nearby lake instead of the scheduled activity of fishing, Kathryn almost has a breakdown. When Jandice accidentally knocks over Orvis during a game of football, the entire day is halted as Kathryn demands her son go to the hospital.

From left to right: Arturo Del Puerto, Juliette Lewis and Brett Gelman in a scene from HBO's "Camping." Photo credit: Anne Marie Fox/HBO

If you thought Hannah was irritating and hard to watch, Garner takes things to a whole new level. It's her first major TV role since the ABC action series "Alias" ended in 2006. Though it's wonderful to see Garner back on the small screen (she's had excellent turns on the big screen, including "Love, Simon" and "Dallas Buyers Club"), and it's exciting to see her working with Dunham and Konner, she's woefully miscast here. Garner gives it her all and manages to pull off the cruelness of Kathryn (she's constantly undermining her sister) but she also brings an innate warmth when she acts. There's something jarring in Garner's performance that counter acts the venomous lines she spews and the way she spews it.

Elsewhere, "Camping" struggles to be funny. There are glimmers of hilarity —Jandice is an excellent character, who Dunham and Konner have fleshed out to be more than a one dimensional archetype, and Lewis has a great time playing Kathryn's foil. Comedian Bridget Everett pops up as Harry, who runs the campsite with her wife. She doesn't get much to do but when she's on screen, she's fantastic as a no-nonsense tough woman, who encourages Kathryn to scream at bears in order to get rid of them.

"Camping" peaks with the fourth episode "Up All Night" when Kathryn is given Adderall instead of Ambien by Jandice and wonders into a nearby camp group. Turns out, a few of Kathryn's gal pals are having a weekend camping trip of their own. These Instagram mommies, played Busy Philipps and Nicole Richie (both of whom are incredible and actually provide the best moments in "Camping"), tolerate a high Kathryn. Though the episode is quite funny, it also exposes some depth into Kathryn's character.

David Tennant and Jennifer Garner in a scene from HBO's "Camping." Photo credit: Anne Marie Fox/HBO

It's possible "Camping" finds its footing after the great fourth episode but up until then, the comedy is a difficult hang. There are strong performances from the rest of its cast, including "This is Us" star Chris Sullivan, "Twin Peaks: The Return" actor Brett Gelman and filmmaker Janicza Bravo (who is married to Gelman in real life and plays his wife on the show).

But Dunham and Konner's painful new comedy is missing the agency and authenticity that made "Girls" a cultural lightening rod. Not that "Camping" should be what "Girls" was but the show isn't really sure what it is at all. It's cringe humor taken to the extreme and has brief flashes of insightful moments. "Camping" would work if it weren't so frustratingly unfunny.


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