Camping, the new HBO limited series starring Jennifer Garner and David Tennant that’s written and produced by Girls duo Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner, arrives amid a time of soaring Peak TV. As much as that term can be overused, it’s an accurate take in a small-screen era filled with dragons and time-travel and majestic backdrops and killer robots. This series, however, contains none of these things but takes viewers (via a remake of a British sitcom about an unfortunate family trip) into a more rustic setting to zero in on humans and their difficult, often annoying interactions with each other. Several of these people actually can’t stand each other, and you’d likely agree with them in real life, but as far as relaxing television fare goes, this series is a light, breezy snack that’s worth savoring in an era of heavily-layered, multi-course TV offerings. It’s also full of delicious conflict, though one shouldn’t expect anything terribly profound to emerge from the ashes.
Away from the conveniences of life and the complex troubles in everyday dealings — and without any tangible physical danger at hand (well, maybe bears) — mere human interaction can be surprisingly difficult. Here, Garner and Tennant play a married couple, Kathryn and Walt, who are enduring a rough patch, but neither wants to articulate the issue. He’s a wafer-thin doormat, and she’s an extraordinarily uptight micromanager, who’s organized a long weekend away for his birthday, and three other couples (their “closest” friends) are invited. That includes Nina’s sister, Carleen (Ione Skye); and Walt’s brother, George (Brett Gelman), whose wife, Nina-Joy (Janicza Bravo), quickly lets viewers know how domineering Kathryn can be to all. Yes, she’s a nightmare, but as the days unfold, the other characters also grow (to paraphrase MTV) tired of acting polite and start being real.
No one’s thrilled about cooperating with Kathryn’s artfully constructed plans, and there’s both conscious and unconscious rebellion at hand. This newfound trend is gleefully kicked off in the pilot when Jandice (Juliette Lewis, reaching the peak form of every free-spirited Juliette Lewis character in history) rips off her clothes and goes skinny dipping on the day before Swimming Day. She’s the super-new girlfriend of the likeable Miguel (Arturo del Puerto), and soon they’re having sex everywhere. Jandice, in her own way, soon exudes an overbearing impact on some characters. She’s a figurative whirling dervish, someone who pretends to not take everyone’s judgments personally while furiously trying to be liked by foisting her way of life upon others through a combination of Reiki-master and impromptu-makeover magic.
Although the series contains multiple arcs, Camping ultimately is the story of these two troubled lionesses, Kathryn and Jandice, circling each other. Through Kathryn’s eyes, Jandice is a monster wreaking havoc on her flawless universe order and need to control everything through histrionics, perfect Instagram photos, and exaggerated health conditions. Yet certainly, Jandice is chaos personified, crashing through dressing room walls and throwing hyena laughs around the campfire. One might even feel sorry for Kathryn, who kind of hates herself, as others half-heartedly defend her from Jandice’s assessments. And Jandice herself is an utter mess, who’s desperately latching onto Arthur while pressuring him into marriage after a few weeks together as well as seeking attention elsewhere. Yet this isn’t a show where a woman is simply pitted against another woman. That’s not how it’s handled at all, for there are no winners between them. Both resist the concept of personal space in very different ways as humans, not as females, and it’s fascinating to watch these two characters refuse to find a middle ground while other players hysterically maneuver around them, attempting to not be caught in the crossfire.
Likewise, the other characters are somewhat miserable in their own ways. It’s something that becomes apparent when they start branching off into groups or duos. In this way, Camping makes brutal commentary on the rituals we carry out in contemporary society to be seen as acceptable to others, and it shines a great deal of light on the immense pressure we place upon ourselves to stay locked in our own respective boxes. Whether this series’ players are throwing back shots, rushing into a minor emergency room, or freaking the hell out (Walt, in particular, grows so frustrated that he goes nuts and tears apart a mattress), they’re all simply searching for approval. Tough topics like infidelity, alcoholism, racially-charged remarks, and sexual difficulties arise, and all are treated with honest aplomb by the writers. Some will find the characters grating, while others will vicariously enjoy (and perhaps learn from) their first-world sufferings.
As a minimalistic, dialogue-focused series, Camping contains an abundance of bitterly funny moments. Yet mostly, this is a dance between two characters who can learn a lot from each other. Kathryn may be “hot with rage,” and Jandice might be a flighty, obnoxious mess, but both are — like the rest of us — simply seeking human connection. They happen to go about finding the same thing in opposite, yet equally disastrous ways, and it’s an intriguing display to witness.
‘Camping’ premieres on HBO on October 14.