For a show that derives so much of its humor from mess and disorder, Camping is big on consistency. It’s an attitude entirely in keeping with the neurotic, obsessive Kathryn McSorley-Jodell, the hypochondriacal antiheroine played with jaw-clenched tenacity by Jennifer Garner. But while Kathryn, who coordinates activities down to the minute and nearly sends her own sister back to Arizona because of an uninvited guest, revels in her routine, Camping’s parallels to its creators’ previous work are less expected.
“I’ve always loved The Big Chill, and I love that movie The Anniversary Party. I love this idea that when people are trapped together, they have to stop faking it,” says Jenni Konner. With Lena Dunham, Konner spent six seasons co-writing, directing, and co-producing Girls, the lightning rod of a coming-of-age comedy following a quartet of 20-something women in gentrified, 21st-century Brooklyn. Many of Girls’ most acclaimed episodes—Season 2’s “One Man’s Trash”; Season 5’s “The Panic in Central Park”—share a structure with Camping, isolating a handful of characters from the rest of the cast and tracking the emotional chaos that ensues. With Girls, these interludes were bottle episodes, a break from the ongoing dramas of a full-sized show. With Camping, it’s the entire premise.
Camping is based off a six-part British show of the same name by comedian Julia Davis, which Dunham came across when novelist Zadie Smith sent it to her as a recommendation for leisure viewing. Instead, Dunham and Konner chose to turn the show into their next professional enterprise. “I think we weren’t ready to go, ‘Should we do seven years of a series again?’” Konner recalls. “We had just, by the time we started this, finished Girls pretty recently. I think it sounded really good to us to just take on a little bit and see how it went.” The intention was to change the template of the original show, but keep the sensibility: “It’s not the difference between a British and an American version; it’s more like the difference between the British and the Lena-and-Jenni version. Not that it’s the same as Girls, but I think tonally, it feels very similar.”
Superficially, the people Camping puts at close quarters are markedly different from Girls’ hapless millennials. Kathryn has organized the titular sojourn in the California wilderness to celebrate her husband Walt (David Tennant) and his 45th birthday. Apart from their 8-year-old son and her sister Carleen’s (Ione Skye) teenage stepchild, these are full-fledged adults, and they at least attempt to act like ones. “The girls of Girls didn’t really think about consequences, but these women do,” Konner says. On the former show, “there was no repressing anything. It was like, ‘This is my deal! You better know it immediately!’ That kind of fighting. It’s just interesting, I think, to have grown women trying not to fight, and trying to hold it in. Because that’s now considered polite society, right? They’re trying not to make things worse.”
Like Girls, Camping centers on a deliberately abrasive woman whose biography borrows liberally from her co-creators. Dunham has spoken publicly about her struggles with endometriosis and the chronic pain resulting from it, culminating in a hysterectomy last year. Five years prior to the events of Camping, Kathryn, too, had a hysterectomy with enduring implications that may or may not be psychosomatic. “The chronic pain, from Lena, obviously, is a huge part of Kathryn, and helps explain her very much as the series goes on,” Konner says. “It really explains that she used to be different, and this is a thing that’s taken over her life, and how it’s hurt her marriage, and all those things.” This being a comedy, Kathryn’s condition is also the source of plenty of jokes, from a conference souvenir jacket bearing the hashtag #painfullystrong to complaints about her inflamed pipes and pelvic floor.
The difference is that, rather than Dunham herself, Kathryn is portrayed by a far more established performer with nearly two decades of goodwill to burn. “Our idea with Jen, was—the character’s really hard to like, so what if you start with America’s sweetheart?” Konner asks. “And then, how far can you push it? Do you have more room, because this delightful woman who everyone knows is delightful, can you push her further into difficult settings and difficult behavior?” Garner’s presence shifts the emotional starting point for viewers so they are naturally inclined to give Kathryn the benefit of the doubt.
Camping struggles to turn its non-Garner ensemble into fully realized people rather than a collection of one-liners. It’s a flaw that manifests in small ways, like the self-consciously quirky character names, such as “Orvis,” “Jandice,” and “Nina-Joy.” The issue also starts to register on a much more critical level, as the connections that theoretically brought this group to the same campsite start to feel hazier and hazier. Newly separated Miguel (Arturo Del Puerto) mentions offhandedly that he’s a human rights lawyer, an occupation that feels less grounded in his personality and more a comment that’s unexpectedly serious and meant to read funny in the moment. Nina-Joy clearly can’t stand Kathryn, and Camping eventually reveals why — though her reasons for agreeing to go on the trip in the first place remain largely unexplained.
Camping feels physically distant from the characters’ everyday lives, which is to its benefit. The show also feels emotionally distant from people or relationships viewers might identify with, which is not. The concept, as expressed by Konner, remains a solid one: “It’s all about this idea, when you get people together, that even if it’s in the whole wide world of camping, there’s no way to repress anything anymore. If you’re mad at your friend, you stop texting them for three days. If you’re mad at your friend on a camping trip, you’re in a huge fight in the woods.” But for the idea to work, the audience needs to understand what, exactly, is being repressed. That’s made clear for Kathryn, whose physical and psychic wounds have rendered her controlling and defensive. As of the four episodes made available to critics, it hasn’t been for almost anyone else.
Dunham and Konner nonetheless remain committed to bringing challenging female protagonists to television, which is the most enduring legacy of Girls and the strongest element of Camping. This collaboration will be Dunham and Konner’s last as producing partners, a creative split announced last summer. Konner is still figuring out her next move: “I’m having a lot of meeting with people and being like, ‘What do you think TV is now?’” But she remains interested in pushing the limits of propriety and likeability, particularly for women. “I always think of this Neil LaBute thing,” Konner says, by way of explaining her interest in unsavory human beings. “‘People always say, who am I supposed to like in this play? No one! Like your friends!’”
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.