Lena Dunham’s Camping Is One Bad Trip

4 minute read

In her 20s, Lena Dunham built a multimedia empire around the maxim “write what you know.” But one young life can fuel only so many stories, and so the creator and star of Girls, now 32, is branching out: on Oct. 14, she and Girls co-showrunner Jenni Konner return to HBO with Camping, an eight-episode series whose characters bear far less resemblance to Dunham.

Adapted from a British comedy of the same name, the show follows four middle-aged couples on a campout in celebration of their sweet friend Walt’s (David Tennant) 45th birthday. Walt’s wife Kathryn McSorley-Jodell is the story’s chaotic center, a hypochondriacal control freak and would-be Instagram lifestyle guru played with bone-deep prissiness by Jennifer Garner. The plot is minimal, but each character packs enough emotional baggage to push the scenes along: Kathryn’s meek sister Carleen (Ione Skye) arrives with her alcoholic husband (Chris Sullivan) and his sulky teenage daughter (Cheyenne Haynes) in tow. Walt’s gregarious best buddy George (Brett Gelman) drags along his wife Nina-Joy (Gelman’s real-life spouse, filmmaker Janicza Bravo), who abruptly ended her friendship with Kathryn sometime ago and has been dreading this reunion. Recently separated from his own wife, Miguel (Arturo del Puerto) has taken up with a DJ/reiki healer/CPA named Jandice (Juliette Lewis, underutilized as usual), whose free spirit and sexual openness make Kathryn McSorley-Jodell extremely uncomfortable.

As these tensions fester, everyone nurses a wound or a secret, the way old friends at The Big Chill-like gatherings always do. Rooted in her own vague pelvic woes, Kathryn’s obsession with injury and illness is ruining her son’s (Duncan Joiner) childhood and trying her husband’s patience. The seams in Jandice’s hedonistic lifestyle start to show. Strangely, however, none of these revelations deepen characters that come across as either broad types (Kathryn, Jandice, Joe) or half-formed foils for those oddballs (everyone else).

An eclectic cast of actors playing largely against type does its best to smooth over uneven characterizations: comedian and cabaret star Bridget Everett, best known for stealing scenes in Trainwreck and Lady Dynamite, is a standout, dripping rugged charm in a recurring role as the campground’s butch lesbian proprietor Harry. Tennant, a former Doctor Who lead who also played the diabolical Kilgrave in Netflix’s hit Jessica Jones, further demonstrates his range as a long-suffering husband who truly loves his nutty wife. It’s just a shame that his understated performance belongs to a different universe from Kathryn’s larger-than-life neuroses.

The original Camping, which aired on Sky Atlantic in 2016, offers some clues as to what went wrong. Carrying on a proud tradition of British humor about decent people forced to tolerate narcissists (The Office, Keeping Up Appearances, Absolutely Fabulous), the slight yet droll comedy cast creator Julia Davis as an older, stodgier, more out-of-touch version of Garner’s lead. But Dunham and Konner clearly wanted to satirize a type more familiar to them, making Kathryn a liberal helicopter mom in a Don’t Hate Meditate sweatshirt, despite giving her lines–“Christ on a cracker!”–that no one in that particular social group would ever say. Similarly, though Lewis’ counterpart in the original series also oozes sexual energy, an added layer of New Age silliness makes Jandice a flightier caricature. Through no fault of Lewis’, a late attempt to give her some depth, in one of many scenes imported directly from the U.K. version, just doesn’t ring true.

Dunham and Konner could have avoided this dissonance by taking significantly more or less from the original: by either filming a shot-for-shot remake of the show or reimagining Davis’ premise with entirely new characters for an American audience. Instead, Camping wanders down both paths–and gets lost in the woods.

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