Camping Review: When Even Cringe Comedy Is Too Cringy

The Jennifer Garner and David Tennant-led HBO series from Lena Dunham will cause viewers as much pain as it inflicts on its characters.

This Camping review is spoiler-free.

There is a moment towards the end of the Camping premiere when Walt (David Tennant), the man whose birthday is supposedly the reason everyone is gallivanting about in nature, turns to his anxious wife Kathryn (Jennifer Garner) to reassure her. “It’s pretty nice!” he exclaims while wading into the shallow waters of a nearby lake. Instead of feeling her many anxieties suddenly dissipate, however, Kathryn calls out to her husband one last time before giving up.

In many ways, this brief exchange feels like a microcosm for all eight episodes of Camping, four of which HBO granted reviewers access to. The show centers on Kathryn, a woman who has suffered intense bouts of chronic pain and multiple surgeries to boot. While she no longer suffers from said pain, she constantly fears that it will randomly return to haunt her. As a result, Kathryn applies a rigorous discipline of control to just about everything she does — including the organization of a camping trip to celebrate Walt’s 45th birthday.

For most people, camping — let alone any excursion outdoors or away from the familiarity of home — is a welcome reprieve. For Kathryn, it’s just another complicated matter that she must contend with. This proves disastrous from the moment she and Walt first enter the picture, and the resulting tension not only blows up many of the less friendly aspects of their marriage, but also bleeds into the relationships (or lack thereof) of the friends and family who accompany them on their camping trip.

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Hence why I come back to (and will keep coming back to) Kathryn and Walt’s exchange at the lake. Time and time again, Camping goes to great lengths to demonstrate just how controlling Garner’s character is, or can be. And every time this happens, the show does just as much legwork to enlist Walt, his college friends Miguel (Arturo Del Puerto) and George (Brett Gelman), the latter’s unhappy wife Nina-Joy (Janicza Bravo) and Kathryn’s sister Carleen (Ione Skye) to calm things down. This gimmick never works by design, of course, because the show’s goal isn’t to help Kathryn and the audience achieve some kind of catharsis together. No, it just wants to make everybody as miserable as possible, while attempting to squeeze in a few laughs.

The thing is, many viewers may find themselves struggling to laugh at any of the jokes, which more often than not feel like afterthoughts to its cringeworthiness. Adapted from the British comedy series of the same name by Girls creators Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner, Camping lives on the line between discomfort and outright embarrassment. It endeavors to follow in the footsteps of Girls, as well as other similar programs like You’re the Worst or, in more light-hearted fare, The Office and Parks and Recreation. Unfortunately for Dunham and Konner, their latest attempt to enter this dramedy pantheon falls flat.

This is largely due to the fact that Camping doesn’t seem to want to provide any kind of resolution, comedic or otherwise, for its characters. Kathryn is consumed by her many neuroses, Walt is devoted to her but growing frustrated, George and Nina-Joy are on the verge of an outright meltdown, and Carleen loathes her sister with a growing fierceness. The interconnections therein provide for a few equally funny and dramatic moments, but they tend to leave you wondering, “Where is this going?” Or, the far more worrying question, “Why should I care about any of this?”

Sure, there’s a very real chance Camping may take a drastic turn in episode five or any of the three episodes that follow. Considering the painfully slow pacing of the first four, and the writers’ preferential treatment of increasingly annoying characters who continuously launch themselves into consistently depraved situations, however, that chance is looking very slim. After four episodes, it’s hard to find a reason to care about any of these people at all. Yet the show does attempt to redeem itself in the character of Jandice, an apparent caricature of free-spirited hippie-ness that, thanks to Juliette Lewis’ scene-stealing performance, comes to life from the moment she crashes into Kathryn’s world.

Jandice arrives on the scene uninvited thanks to Miguel, whose midlife crisis includes a brand new girlfriend. She is the proverbial yang to Kathryn’s closely-guarded yin, and her presence is very much an attempt by the showrunners to challenge the latter’s many attempts to control the situation. Jandice is the one who, while Walt uselessly tries to tell his wife that the water is actually “pretty nice,” encourages everyone to strip their inhibitions (and clothes) and dance into the waters, naked and free and fun.

Though Lewis and the writers do a lot to flesh Jandice out and, in turn, bring some much-needed spice to the story, it just isn’t enough to salvage Camping from its many glaring issues. This is, after all, a show that is supposed to be funny. Cringe-inducing, yes, but funny. But in place of these absolutely necessary laughs, Camping populates its beats with one uncomfortable situation after another and almost never offers the audience any kind of reprieve.

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Camping premieres this Sunday at 10 p.m. ET on HBO.

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3 out of 5