Imagine if, a few episodes into the first season of the Steve Carell version of The Office, NBC opted to pair it on a lineup with Extras, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s follow-up to the UK original Office. That would have seemed strange, right? Even for the millions of viewers who’d never heard of David Brent before, there would’ve been an unsettling degree of overlap in the two shows’ comic voices, Extras proving itself to be harsher than the American Office ultimately wanted to be. It would feel as though the remake were being perpetually judged by the people who came up with the idea in the first place, even if they’d signed off on the American show.
This is the basic dynamic HBO is setting up starting on Sunday night. At 10, the pay cable giant will air the latest episode of Camping, Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner’s remake of a Brit-com created by comedian Julia Davis. Immediately following that is Sally4Ever, Davis’ first series as creator and co-star since her version of Camping. The arrangement will only last for four weeks before Camping wraps up its story, but it provides a fascinating contrast in sensibilities, even if both originally come from the same voice.
Camping (which I’ve mostly enjoyed) is a cringe comedy, but one that’s attempting to root itself in understandable human behavior. Jennifer Garner told me that her one request of Dunham and Konner about playing an insufferable control freak like Kathryn McSorley-Jodell was to “see where the vulnerability is coming from […] justify it in some way so that she’s a real human.” It’s a reasonable desire for a performer (and for the show’s writers), but there are ways in which trying to make Kathryn and her friends more empathetic actually renders the awkward moments even more unbearable.
I haven’t seen the original version of Camping, but across the three episodes of Sally4Ever HBO provided for review, Davis is clearly unconcerned with finding a monster’s inner soul. She plays Emma, a pansexual aspiring singer and actress who attracts the attention of Sally (Catherine Shepherd), a mousy woman who has spent 10 years miserably dating the nerdy David (Alex Macqueen) while failing to find professional fulfillment in the world of marketing. To Sally, Emma is a sexy, charismatic lifeline out of an existence she’s previously been afraid to so much as complain about. To Emma, Sally is both host and prey, there to provide lodging (in a house David owns, no less) and fun until Emma grows bored and moves on to her next infatuated victim.
The series has a modicum of sympathy for Sally. Her life has been so bereft of pleasure for so long that she can hardly be blamed for failing to fully recognize that her new lover is a sociopath. At times, she does seem to notice, but then pushes it down because she’s so turned on by the excitement Emma offers. In lesser hands, the creator writing herself a role where she’s the main character’s libidinous Kryptonite could come across as narcissistic and desperate. But Davis writes, directs and plays Emma in such a fearlessly outsized manner that the spell she’s cast over Sally is understandable, even as she seems utterly ridiculous. Emma is the sexual yin to the yang of David (played by Macqueen with an equal lack of vanity), whose personal habits, from the way he flosses his teeth to the way he masturbates, are so off-putting, it’s a wonder Sally didn’t consider another partner — or a convent — years before. The series’ comic highlights are its absurdly choreographed sexual encounters between Sally and Emma, particularly one in the first episode that cuts between Emma tending to Sally’s crotch with a feather duster while David (obliviously away on business) blow dries his own through his boxer briefs.
The unrelenting awfulness of Emma, David and most of the other people in Sally’s orbit — including Eleanor (Felicity Montagu), a disabled creep who uses her wheelchair as license to annoy people who otherwise can’t stand her — is a particularly British flavor of comedy. There’s no attempt to explain Emma or justify her behavior, and Davis feels only so much generosity of spirit towards poor Sally. In the short term — which is how Brit-coms tend to function, producing far fewer episodes and seasons than their American counterparts — this can be wildly effective, even necessary. The laughs Sally4Ever provides — and there are big ones — come precisely because Emma, David and the rest are so terrible in such exaggerated fashion. Pausing to diagnose the source of their dysfunction, as HBO’s Camping periodically does with Kathryn and her cohorts, would only undercut the joke and potentially make things more uncomfortable because of the pesky emotions involved.
But that razed-earth approach has its limits, too. The Gervais Office is a more flawless creation than the Carell model, but it only ever had to sustain its bleak comic tone over 12 episodes and a Christmas special. (And a Merchant-less reunion movie about David Brent a while back, but the less said about that, the better.) Even towards the end of its second season, it could be difficult to sit through, because David was so willfully blind to his many flaws. The American show, meanwhile, had many peaks and valleys, but it was more sustainable because it delved into Michael Scott’s humanity just enough to make him tolerable — even, at times, sympathetic — over the long haul.
The Dunham/Konner Camping doesn’t have to worry about longevity, as it’s a six-episode limited series (whose creators have since stopped working together, at that). Sally4Ever, meanwhile, is the more admirable half of this cross-continental pairing, and the more explosively funny one. But I was already wearying of it by the third episode, because Emma is that unapologetically appalling. This problem is one of sensibility rather than execution, and Sally4Ever certainly commits to its goals. The next two Sunday nights on HBO will do a nice job of illustrating some of the core differences between comedy here versus over there. You just may need to watch both shows while hiding under a chair for a while.