Following the success of beloved shows like “House of Cards” and “The Office,” American television networks turned to British series for their next big hit. HBO’s eight-episode series “Camping” is the latest result of this search. Adapted by writers Jenni Konner and Lena Dunham (“Girls”) from a British comedy of the same name, “Camping” follows a group of couples on the vacation of a lifetime. Its concept promises witty humor, dark comedy and a show that thrives on the tensions it creates. But it fails to deliver at all of these.
Kathryn McSorley (Jennifer Garner, “Love, Simon”) is an intense, overbearing mother, wife and friend that runs a semi-successful Instagram account for “working moms and women with chronic pain” and has issues with her pelvic floor she won’t hesitate to tell you about. She organized a camping trip for her meek husband Walt’s (David Tennant, “Mary Queen of Scots”) 45th birthday, and she’ll be damned if it doesn’t go exactly as planned.
Spoiler alert! The trip does not go exactly as planned. Upon arrival at their campsite, Kathryn finds out that her ditsy sister Carleen (Ione Skye, “Heartthrob”) brought her painfully indifferent stepdaughter Sol (Cheyenne Haynes, “Under the Silver Lake”) and her recovering-opioid-addict partner Joe (Chris Sullivan, “This Is Us”). This isn’t even the worst part, as Kathryn finds out that one of the invited couples has separated without telling her, but the husband still shows up — with another woman.
Now viewers are introduced to the kink in the high-strung, painfully contrived armor of Kathryn McSorley. Jandice (Juliette Lewis, “A Million Little Pieces”) is a risqué, go-with-the-flow boho woman who DJs raves in her apartment and loves having sex in public places. She is everything Kathryn hates — spontaneity, danger, charisma, fun. That’s not to say she is likable. In fact, not a single character on the show is, except for maybe Kathryn’s young son Orvis (Duncan Joiner, “Spirit Riding Free”) who speaks perhaps 10 words across two episodes. Everything you need to know about Walt and Kathryn should come from the fact they named their son Orvis.
With no real plot to lean on, “Camping” relies on its campers to carry the show. Much like “Girls,” the cast is comprised of bad people doing bad things to each other, leaving all of us wondering why they even remain friends. But unlike “Girls,” this is truly painful to watch. Kathryn is such an insufferable individual that it’s almost impossible someone as horrible as her would exist in real life, let alone have a husband or friends to go camping with. It hurts to knock down a character portrayed by actual Hollywood princess Jennifer Garner, but even her always-elegant presence cannot salvage this unbearable character. It’s as if “Camping” has made their own protagonist the butt of every joke, and all the other characters are in on the gig.
Lena Dunham has committed many high-profile mistakes in her life. Whether it’s the questionable displacement of her dog Lamby or her pick-and-choose feminism, Dunham is repeatedly ruled as a “problematic” character. Putting this show on air can be added to that ever-growing list of wrongdoings. Watching “Camping” is about as unpleasant experience as the activity that gives it its namesake. You may walk in bright-eyed and excited, expecting a good time, but you’ll leave dirty and ridden with bug bites, feeling dejected and taken advantage of.