If I hadn’t known that HBO’s new comic miniseries Camping was based on a British show (created by Julia Davis), I would assume Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner had conjured it on a dare. Their previous show, Girls, was beloved and reviled in equal measure for just how uncomfortable it could be to watch, particularly whenever Dunham’s Hannah Horvath was pushing the limits of socially acceptable behavior. Camping‘s heroine, Kathryn McSorley-Jodell, is in many ways even more fundamentally off-putting: a pushy helicopter mom who never understands when to stop talking about her hysterectomy, her Instagram account (“cresting at 11,000 followers”) or whatever else she’s obsessed with at the moment. I could imagine Dunham and Konner wondering: Can we top ourselves in the squirm-inducing department?
The eight-episode series (it debuts Sunday; I’ve seen the first four) takes Kathryn, her husband Walt and their young son Orvis, plus their closest friends and family — the ones who will still put up with Kathryn, anyway — into the wilderness for Walt’s birthday weekend. Kathryn is in her natural element: not nature itself, that is, but a realm in which she can boss people around and criticize their flaws. (Even Orvis isn’t immune; at one point she scolds him, “Don’t pout, honey. It makes your face rounder than it already is.”) It’s clear almost immediately that this will be, as one character puts it, “a looooooong weekend” — for us as much as for Kathryn’s guests.
This dynamic could be unbearable to watch, and for many viewers it probably will be. Dunham, Konner and friends don’t let up on exposing Kathryn’s worst qualities or on the discomfort that comes from putting this mismatched group together in an isolated setting. Even when Kathryn is being relatively fun, she’s still so intense that it’s unsettling: Her hugs resemble the ones Pepe Le Pew used to give to that poor cat.
But Camping has a secret weapon that Girls lacked: Jennifer Garner.
For all the emotional shading Dunham eventually brought to her performance as Hannah, she’ll never be an America’s sweetheart type. Garner always has been. The whole point of her star-making role as Alias spy Sydney Bristow was the contrast between her sweet, abashed everyday demeanor and how coldly and easily she could kick ass. Kathryn is a profoundly difficult character, and Garner embraces it. But her innate Jennifer Garner-hood — which led Dunham to joke that Garner could “walk right up to me and go, ‘I’ve killed your mom and I’ve taken your boyfriend,’ and I’d be like, ‘Well, that’s your right'” — shines through, even when Kathryn is being casually cruel to her sister Carleen or stealing padded mats from the other tents because “hard surfaces wreak havoc on my pelvic floor.” (Most of the details about Kathryn’s hysterectomy and its aftermath are drawn directly from Dunham’s own experience with the operation, which she underwent in December of 2017.) Comically, Garner can get away with a lot, and Camping sets out to see just how much, even as it offers periodic hints of the Kathryn everybody used to like.
“She loves intensely,” suggests their friend George (Brett Gelman), fishing for something nice to say about her. “Isn’t that something to admire?”
It’s an eclectic cast surrounding Garner. As resigned beta-male Walt, David Tennant has to repress a lot of his own natural energy, but in a way that explains how the marriage is still going. Say Anything‘s Ione Skye, pulled out of acting purgatory for her highest-profile role in decades, is a warm and endearingly odd presence as Carleen(*), while Juliette Lewis makes an excellent temperamentally-opposite foe for Kathryn as Jandice, a free spirit tagging along with Kathryn and Walt’s newly-separated pal Miguel (Arturo Del Puerto). And Chris Sullivan effectively separates himself from Toby on This Is Us as Carleen’s recovering-addict boyfriend Joe, whose many failings all come bubbling up in this extreme environment.
(*) One episode features a reference to John Cusack that’s much more distracting than it’s meant to be, simply because, moments earlier, we were watching the former Diane Court.
Camping is not an easy watch, even when things are relatively peaceful among the group. But the performances are all strong, and the writing tends to find more empathy for its characters — Kathryn included — than they often have for one another.