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.