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'Camping' is Not a Trip Worth Taking
October 14, 2018  | By David Hinckley  | 1 comment

It’s never a good sign when you’re looking at your watch partway through a half-hour show.

HBO’s Camping, which premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. ET with a lot of good actors, unfortunately sends them on the TV equivalent of a bad weekend in the woods. You keep thinking it will be really nice when it’s over.

Based on a British series and co-written by Jenni Konner and Lena Dunham of Girls fame, Camping is designed as hip-and-cool satire, jammed with allusions to pretentious elements of contemporary culture and people who carry quirky behavior to extremes.

That premise has produced many good comedies. This just isn’t one of them.

Camping revolves around Kathryn Siddell-Bauers (Jennifer Garner, top), who has organized a camping trip for family and friends to celebrate the 45th birthday of her husband Walt (David Tennant, left, with Garner).

As his age would suggest, it’s one of those events where the unspoken agenda includes proving to everyone involved that despite the fact we’re all getting older, we remain vigorous and alive.

And that’s fine. Subtle desperation isn’t a bad subtext for a comedy.

Nor is it automatically a dealbreaker that the rest of the party members mostly consist of cartoons. George (Brett Gelman) is an unfiltered, loudmouth boor. Kathryn’s sister Carleen (Ione Skye, below) shows up with her indifferent teenage daughter Sol (Cheyenne Haynes), despite the fact this was supposed to be an adult affair. Miguel (Arturo Del Puerto, bottom) shows up with his girlfriend Jandice (Juliette Lewis) when Kathryn assumed he would show up with his wife.

They soon turn Camping into what starts feeling like a deranged cousin of The Big Chill. Jandice yanks off all her clothes and goes skinny-dipping. Kathryn steals the foam mattresses from all the other tents. And so it goes, for longer than most of it feels funny.  

Because Kathryn is the center pole of this clown tent, she’s the biggest part of the problem – both for the other characters and viewers.  

Kathryn is a human helicopter, hovering over everyone and trying to herd them with her whirling blades. For purposes of the camping trip, and therefore this show, she has planned every detail and is convinced that if everyone does exactly what she says, when she says it, they will have the best time ever.

The space between those expectations and the thousand things we know can mess them up is where the comedy should live. It would, too, if those thousand things were properly framed as comic absurdity. Instead, they feel like hammers, pounding the same nails for too long and in the end leaving us with characters we don’t really care about.

It could be amusing, for instance, that when they all sit down for their first breakfast, Kathryn announces they must finish in the next seven minutes if they’re going to stay on her schedule.

Trouble is, she doesn’t just play that gag once. She whines about her schedule again. And again. By the sixth or seventh time, it’s just annoying.

When the group gets to the lake where Jandice goes swimming, Kathryn tells everyone they can’t go into the water because her schedule calls for swimming tomorrow. Today is for bird-watching.

As more and more of the group jump into the water anyway, Kathryn keeps whining. When everyone else is in, and she repeats for the 10th time that they are supposed to be bird-watching, it’s not fun any more. It’s awkward and sort of sad.

This isn’t Garner’s fault. She gets everything possible out of the character. The script just doesn’t tune in to the humor of people who are, in the words of a Jerry Lee Lewis classic, “middle-aged crazy, trying to prove they still can.”

The age is ripe for absurdist comedy, and the situation could work. Camping has its moments, but you know when a show keeps falling back on bear jokes that it hasn’t quite figured out its humans.

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Meanwhile, on BBC, Tennant is succeeding in clever 'dark humor' as the Father in a family with a severely disabled child. It is a comedy, as difficult as that would seem. Yet it entirely avoids the maudlin.
Oct 21, 2018   |  Reply
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