The world of fiction boasts a long, proud history of stories of deeply unpleasant people you somehow care about, in spite of that visceral unpleasantness. (Mostly, they’re men.) These stories can be wearying, but when they’re good, they’re also rewarding. We recognize in these people the nastiest, ugliest corners of ourselves; we also recognize their, and our, humanity. We cringe, we laugh, and sometimes, we’re better for it. It’s like magic. If only “Camping” could manage such a trick. But hey, at least it pulls off the unpleasantness.
The last joint project from Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner (“Girls”), who announced the end of their writing partnership this summer, “Camping” is an American take of the British series of the same name, which was created by Julia Davis. It centers on a group of what one might be tempted to call friends, but which could more accurately be described as a loose collection of people who know each other, most of whom like at least a few people the people there and can barely tolerate others. They’ve come to celebrate Walt’s (David Tennant) birthday, a weekend-long event organized by his peevish, abrasive, and overzealous wife Catherine (Jennifer Garner, working extremely hard). Among them: Nina-Joy (Janicza Bravo), whose tension with Catherine threatens to capsize the weekend from moment one, and her husband George (Brett Gelman); Catherine’s tentative sister Carleen (Ione Skye), her boyfriend Joe (Chris Sullivan), who left his A.A. 30-day chip as a tip at a diner, and his teenage daughter Sol (Cheyenne Haynes); and Miguel (Arturo Del Puerto), whose recent separation from his wife makes the others believe he won’t show. But show he does, bringing a force of chaos in his wake: Jandice (Juliette Lewis), a DJing, reiki-practicing, pill-dispensing notary who some would call a free spirit and others would call unhinged. The weekend, unsurprisingly, goes badly.
It’s not that unpleasant people who treat those around them like garbage can’t be great TV. “Mad Men” comes to mind. So does “Girls,” for that matter. The problem with “Camping” is not that Catherine, Jandice, and company—but especially Catherine and Jandice—are people with whom you’d never in a million years want to share a campsite. No, the issue is that they’re not really people. For every glimmer of humanity or odd moment of self-recognition, there are 10 that bear no resemblance to reality without so much as a glimmer of the engagingly absurd. They are sketches, and they’re not entertaining ones; they say things that might be funny, if a human being said them, but as lines delivered by the caricature of a really disagreeable person, they’re just off-putting.
Nowhere is this a bigger problem than with Catherine, played with admirable but uneffective gusto by Garner. It would be easy to say that she was simply miscast as Catherine, a bitter, manipulative, painfully un-self-aware woman seemingly incapable of casual pleasant interactions. And admittedly, it’s not a perfect fit—”off-putting” is perhaps more in Garner’s wheelhouse than “loathsome.” But there are glimmers throughout the four episodes screened for critics of what might have been, had the writing for those episodes presented her with anything coherent to play. A scene in an emergency room in which a spiraling Catherine tells her young son Orvis (Duncan Joiner) that it’s possible to look fine but feel terrible plays simply and beautifully, a moment of recognizably human conversation that’s so welcome that viewers, if they’re anything like me, will drink it in as greedily as if it were an ice-cold beer on a very hot day in the middle of an interminable camping trip with some incredibly lousy people.
There are similar moments, some quiet, and hard to watch—she’s especially good with Tennant, who we’ll return to in a moment—but they’re depressingly rare. The rest is all blitzing through paragraphs about Instagram followers and detailed schedules and chronic pain and pelvic floors and near-constant assertions that everyone around her is constantly ruining her life, at every moment. When one line would get the point across—“Checking in, eight adults one child four nights at the Groupon rate,” in one breath, to the campground’s bemused proprietor (Bridget Everett)—there are usually four, and at least half are gruesomely on the nose. On “Alias,” Garner successfully sold the Rambaldi mythology, which involved Da Vinci and big red floating balls of goo. She got four Emmy nominations for that show. She can’t even kind of make this junk work.
Others fare better. The only remotely shaky thing about Tennant’s performance is his often comically thick American accent; in all other respects, he carefully crafts a portrayal of a loving, supportive man who is just about at the end of his gosh-darned rope and completely unsure of how to handle that. As the similarly put-upon Nina-Joy, Bravo gets to play something like the straight man, but instead of being the solid wall off which jokes can bounce, she’s the reasonably sane, clear-eyed person who reaffirms that yes, this is all crazy. She does it all with appealing reserve and emotional resonance. The same is true of Chris Sullivan’s Joe, who imbues his spiraling jackass with enough vulnerability and self-loathing to avoid making him another loathsome object. And while there’s nothing subtle about it, Lewis’ turn as the wild Jandice is so damned entertaining that it’s hard not to hunger for more. She’s occasionally funny, bless the Lord, but more importantly, she’s a force, an energy. Jandice enters the frame and things change.
“Camping” seemingly never stops, never shuts up, and yet somehow it still takes a good long while before it seems to be getting anywhere. Yet paradoxically, the slowest moments are the ones in which the best of the series seems to emerge. It’s not just that the acting is best in those quiet moments. When the characters take a breath, a real sense of place seeps in between the sentences. Directors Konner, John Riggi, and Wendey Stanzler—the last of whom directed the “Parks and Recreation” episode “Flu Season,” one of the best sitcom outings of the century so far—each evocatively capture the vast, dark, loud-quietness of a campground after dark, while Stanzler in particular makes every beige tent feel insanely cramped and small. In the former case, the cameras wander down paths, creeping up on the characters or catching sight of them from a distance. In the latter, it’s always crammed in somehow, one more unwelcome presence in a space that’s way too small to contain such uncomfortable people.
It’s effective stuff, but perhaps too effective at times. “Camping” traps eight adults, two children, in a campground at the Groupon rate for a weekend from hell. On such weekends, every day is too long, every irritation heightened. It’s not a good state in which to live, but it could be ripe material for comedy, or for good storytelling. What you’re given here is a camping trip you’d never want to take, with people you’d never like to meet, doing things you’re almost embarrassed to watch. With all that discomfort, there may not be much to stop audiences from packing up their shit and moving on.