In 2015, my colleague Christopher Orr pondered why the British are better at satire. The crux of it, he concluded, was that British comedy is both lighter and darker, more cynical but less serious, rooted in awfulness and unfettered by the obligation to make characters likable in any way.
Which about sums up what’s wrong with Camping, Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner’s new comedy miniseries for HBO. The British series it’s based on, which was written and directed by Julia Davis (Gavin & Stacey), is relentlessly excruciating, filled with awful and pitiful human beings who savage one another over the course of the world’s worst birthday getaway. It is, in short, hilarious. The alpha of the group, Fiona (Vicki Pepperdine), is a woman so sour that her features have puckered into a mean, disgusted em dash. Given the modicum of power that planning the weekend affords her, she’s a passive-aggressive tyrant, deploying the word sorry with a menace that only British people can master.
In the Americanized Camping, though, the Fiona character has a new name (Kathryn Siddell-Bauers), and a new actress. She’s played by Jennifer Garner, which is a bit like casting Jennifer Lawrence (another of Hollywood’s most likable stars) to play Annie Wilkes. Garner’s Kathryn is still horrendous, still tyrannical, still prone to stealing everyone else’s mattress pad and harping on incessantly about who owes her money and how much. But she’s also humanized in a way that makes the nastiness of the character somehow harder to take.
The premise of the show is the same: Kathryn has planned a four-day camping trip to celebrate the birthday of her husband, Walt (David Tennant). Kathryn’s distressed when her sister Carleen (Ione Skye) brings along her teenage stepdaughter (Cheyenne Haynes); she’s apoplectic when Walt’s recently divorced friend Miguel (Arturo Del Puerto) brings his new girlfriend, Jandice (Juliette Lewis). Jandice—free-spirited, sexually insatiable, frequently naked, and extremely herself—is the anti-Kathryn, setting up the battleground for an epic confrontation of female ids.
Something about the dynamic is wrong, though. Garner gives Kathryn a nicely manic energy and a comically absurd kind of shrewishness. (“Read the Evite from top to bottom,” she spits. “They weren’t suggestions.”) But Dunham and Konner, who co-wrote the first two episodes, seem to want to comprehend Kathryn’s awfulness rather than to present it as a simple reality in a comic setup. They give her a backstory involving a premature hysterectomy and a history of chronic pain, both of which Dunham has also experienced and talked about, and both of which are hard to satirize.
“That’s the thing about life,” Kathryn tells her son, Orvis (Duncan Joiner). “You can feel fine but also know that you are a ticking time bomb. Your insides don’t match your outsides. It’s the scariest part of being human.” The scene has a tremendous amount of pathos for what Kathryn has endured. And it totally ruins the show’s setup.
Otherwise, Camping has a zany mood and typically sharp writing that makes it more watchable in later episodes (particularly when Busy Philipps suddenly shows up). Tennant, as Walt, is enormously watchable and endlessly beleaguered, with a physicality that seems to crumple up on himself with frustration and thwarted emotion. Walt is gentle, indulgent, enduring to a fault, but the sterile state of his marriage is thrown into sharp relief by Miguel and Jandice. Lewis is delightful as Jandice (the Jessa of the group, if we’re typecasting per Dunham and Konner’s previous show), utterly self-absorbed and radiantly extroverted, disrupting the hierarchy of the group in a way that throws everything into chaos.
The series is studded with Dunham and Konner’s characteristic one-liners, which give more of a sense of who these people are than full biographies ever could. Kathryn tells Carleen that the two women only know each other because she introduced them at a “members-only Fabletics sale.” When she momentarily loses Orvis, she shrieks, “Blow your rape whistle if you can hear Mommy.” When Jandice tells a waitress that she looks familiar, the waitress replies that she’s “heavily featured in Nan Goldin’s early work,” to which Jandice nods with perfect comprehension. Instagram features heavily as a plot point.
The trouble isn’t that these people are unlikable. It’s that they’re not unlikable enough. Lewis is too charismatic, Tennant too tragic, Garner too wounded to truly fulfill the roles that satire demands of them. Describing Kathryn, one character notes that “she’s tough, she’s bitter, she’s hot with rage, but she’s not bad.” And Camping isn’t bad either, necessarily, it’s just filled with a kind of empathy that’s rather out of place.