Camping is a new limited series from writers and executive producers Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner, the team that gave us Girls, but it’s safe to say that this HBO series is a little less like that and a little more like Lord of the Flies. Based on a British series of the same name created by Julia Davis, Camping follows the controlling, obsessive yet pain-addled mom, wife and “minor Instagram star” Kathryn McSorley-Jodell (Jennifer Garner, Love, Simon) as she leads a group of friends on a camping trip to celebrate the 45th birthday of her compliant husband Walt (David Tennant, Doctor Who).
But Kathryn’s meticulously over-organized excursion does not go the way she had hoped, thanks to various tensions surfacing within the group itself and the arrival of an unexpected guest: Jandice (Juliette Lewis), the new girlfriend of recently divorced Miguel (Arturo del Puerto), a woman of “many talents” and unabashed free spirit whose main skills seem to be the ability to disrupt people’s lives and especially get under Kathryn’s already thin skin.
What happens during the next few days (and eight episodes) at Brown Bear Lake will test friendships, marriages and perhaps the sanity of some of the participants, which also include Kathryn’s meek sister Carleen (Ione Skye), her boorish and newly sober husband Joe (Chris Sullivan), Kathryn’s estranged best friend Nina-Joy (Janicza Bravo) and her amiable yet rage-fueled spouse George (Brett Gelman), as well as the Jodell’s son Orvis (Duncan Joiner) and Joe’s sulking teen daughter Sol (Cheyenne Haynes).
“I don’t know that I was intrigued by the subject matter, but more by the script itself and by Jenni and Lena’s sheer volume and cleverness and capacity for words,” said Garner at a press day for the show earlier this week in Los Angeles. “And then also the characters and how deeply disturbed they all are in their own ways. How complicated their relationships are and how they slowly unravel as time goes on.”
“I really loved Girls and for me it was sort of like, ‘HBO? Lena Dunham, Jenni Konner? Yes! Whatever it is!’ I wasn’t like, ‘As long as the script is good,’” said Skye. “It was, I feel like, an interesting challenge for them and us, because Girls was very much about interpersonal relationships had a very specific voice. So for me, it was exciting just because I was a fan of that voice so I was just happy to be involved with it.”
Garner, Tennant and Konner all watched the original British series, acknowledging that it was darker and more brutal than the take that Konner and Dunham have come up with. “It was brilliant and I loved it,” said Garner. “But they went so much farther with Kathryn that I thought, ‘I don’t know if we can do this in America.’ Jenni and Lena actually toned her down quite a bit and softened her quite a bit and gave you reasons why (she was the way she was), whereas in the British version you didn’t get those.”
“I think Julia Davis, who I love and think is brilliant, is a very different writer too than Jenni and Lena,” added Tennant. “I think this show is about the minutiae of interpersonal relationships. That’s what they created. Whereas Julia likes to take things beyond and into the macabre. And I think they probably start to divert more and more as the series goes on.”
“What we saw in the (British) show, what I thought was so exciting was that it reminded me a little of The Big Chill,” said Konner. “In this scenario, you have all these people and you have the big wide world of the woods, and yet it’s totally claustrophobic. So all this stuff comes to the surface that might not have. You might think you have your life together, you might think you’re doing fine, and then it all comes out. There’s no way to keep it repressed.”
While Garner’s character starts out as almost impossible to empathize with, let alone spend a few days in the wilderness with, the show gradually reveals other layers to Kathryn that provide insight into why she is the way she is — including her battle with constant chronic pain as a result of a major surgical procedure she had several years before the show takes place.
“I think as we were shooting there were moments that were relatable for everyone about Kathryn where you say, ‘Oh my gosh, I have a sister like this. Or there’s a kid in my pre-school who’s mom is just like this is,’” remarked Garner. “The only people who really understand her are a group of characters that I’ve thought a lot about but that we never see. They’re the people that she has this blog with about living with chronic pain but that is real to her. That’s her community and her posse and she’s a rock star to them, because she’s out there camping and doing things even with this pain.”
I think we’re also meeting these characters at very particular times in their life,” said Juliette Lewis, whose wild child Jandice has a surprising secret that gets revealed a few episodes in. “I have a group of girlfriends who have sort of had these trips throughout our lives — we’ve been doing it maybe two decades now and it’s funny that sometimes people are all in similar disarray or you know, very Mercury-in-retrograde kind of headspaces. It’s funny how it can happen at the same time and then other times it’s just a couple people are a little out of sorts. So that energy in that mix is really exciting to play.”
Even the supporting characters, such as the tough-talking, gun-toting lesbian manager of the campsite, Harry (played by stand-up comedy star Bridget Everett), get to have moments where they reveal something about themselves that goes beyond the initial impression the character makes.
“They were so generous about letting me sort of figure it out,” said Everett. “There’s a way that Harry could have been like a caricature, but I don’t have enough talent to play that…I have to bring Harry to me a little bit.” She added, “I think that there’s something special, and I really do mean it, about working with women cause you feel sort of cared for and that they’re giving you the opportunity to jump off a ledge and trust yourself in a way that you may not feel otherwise.”
Konner said that the chemistry between the cast members gave Dunham, her and the show’s other writers inspiration to combine the characters in different ways. “I mean, that happens a lot,” she recalled. “There were certain things we could predict that were funny. We always knew Juliette and Jen would be funny together. But one of the things that also came up kind of was that we found this love between David Tennant and Ione, which was I think based from their abuse from Kathryn and just kind of came out of their performances. So we just started writing to them as well because that felt really, really funny to us– that idea that they’re just like the abused children.”
For all the cast members, the appeal of delving into Camping’s curdled but still honest view of the relationships between friends, lovers and anything in between came directly out of the reputation for painfully truthful storytelling that Konner and Dunham brought to this new venture (which is, by the way, intended as a one-and-done, insists Konner).
“It’s so exciting when you have women of this caliber that have created their own, I don’t want to say ‘brand,’ but their own recognizable culture and characters and dialogue,” said Lewis. “The dialogue has such a particular rhythm and it feels so real. I actually laughed out loud reading these scripts. That’s so unusual, especially when you’ve been doing this 30 years. And then Jen Garner and I had worked together before some 10-plus years ago and we really enjoyed working together. Plus I’m a fan of Ione’s for such a long time and we have mutual friends. So it felt really like a family affair.”
Camping premieres Sunday night (October 14) at 10:00 p.m. ET/PT on HBO.
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Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye