When I walked into Denver’s REI Co-op for a premiere screening of Camping, the new HBO comedy series from Girls creators Lena Dunham and Jenni Konnor, I had no idea how the concept would play out over multiple episodes, I only knew that I have a deep love for both Lena Dunham and Jenni Konnor’s creations, and HBO events. When you’ve kicked around the culture writing world for long enough, you learn, HBO knows how to play host. So, even though a chic retail outdoors store seems a curious setting for a screening, I eventually found myself seated in a cute theater that gave off every impression of being a room at a kitschy summer camp. There were string lights above, benches mingled into the seats, plants surrounding the screen and a make your own trail mix station just outside the door. This last feature was perhaps more popular than predicted, as Colorado’s North Face-loving, outdoor-enthusiasts aggressively got after that snack, creating a line only the most devoted trail mix lover would brave.
But zest for snacks aside, the assembled audience seemed far more equipped to laugh at silly outdoor adventure foibles than I did, but it was clear that a few other Girls enthusiasts were among us. We all settled in and quickly Jennifer Garner’s face flooded the screen. She’s jumping up and down trying to take the perfect picture for her lifestyle Instagram account. She has about 600 followers, you might recognize her. And this is how we meet Kathryn, a micromanager of a wife and mom who’s organized a group camping trip for her husband’s birthday. Kathryn is reeling from a hysterectomy and seems to have turned to planning the trip down to the minute in order to maintain a sense of control in her life. Apart from her earnest husband, Walt (David Tennant), and their son Orvis (Duncan Joiner), that seems likely to be a tall order. Even as Kathryn darts around, collecting mattresses to avoid contact with the ground wreaking havoc on her pelvic floor, other couples with problems of their own approach.
First, there’s Kathryn’s sister, Carleen (Ione Skye) and her newly on-the-wagon boyfriend, Joe (Chris Sullivan). Carleen is hippie-adjacent, but in a laissez faire way. She’s not here to sell you beads, but she does wear a multi-colored string of yarn in her hair. She also seems to lack a voice of her own. Meanwhile, Joe is full of bluster, a reluctantly sober ne’er do well who may or may not be detoxing off of drugs and has roped Carleen into bringing his teenage daughter along, little though she wants to attend. Then there are the well-meaning Nina-Joy (Janicza Bravo) and George (Brett Gelman) who only bring drama in the form of an unresolved conflict with Nina-Joy and Kathryn that the latter is determined to mend. Finally, despite a rumor that he would not be present as the result of a rift with his wife, Miguel (Arturo Del Puerto) arrives in a blaze of … not glory, with his new girlfriend, Jandice (Juliette Lewis) in tow. Quite apart from her sudden appearance in Miguel’s life, Jandice brings a new level to the entire scenario by virtue of her very being. Dunham herself captured it best in a Tweet, “Jandice is every person who has ever told me I could be cured by seeing a French guy for some bullshit!” Jandice is every bit that toxic, occasionally magnetic personality and she’s brought to life with aplomb by Lewis who is fully in her element in this motley crew of bothersome buddies.
What unfolds over the first 30 minutes of the show is nothing short of a disastrous start to what seems a doomed trip. Bummer for them, occasionally uproarious for us. Camping is still feeling out exactly what it will become, but this group of characters is the blueprint for a zany, challenging story of the type that might not land with many audiences, but will positively slay with the right audience. And that tracks. Dunham and Konner have adapted Camping from a British mini-series of the same name, that is, by reputation, pitch black satire of the type we simply don’t see in America. Where the characters her have been built with nuance and threads of redemption, the original campers were there to be hated, purely and simply. Whether this new look will ultimately find resonance of the course of these eight episodes remains to be seen, but it’s clear that Camping has a story to tell, and we’ve been given more than enough reason to follow where it leads us.
New episodes of Camping air Sundays on HBO.