As scripted summer replacements go, the forecast for NBC’s “Camp” would best be described as cloudy, with a chance of “Meatballs.” Filmed in Australia, the summer-camp dramedy is filled with all the requisite clichés, yet the premiere stumbles onto some promising moments in its dual-generation plots involving the kids and camp owner/director, played by “Six Feet Under’s” Rachel Griffiths. The second hour, however, is a tiresome mess, and the characters aren’t consistently strong enough to make this show much more than a summer fling, distinguished more by its financing model than its been-around-the-lake situations.
Frankly, NBC Universal wins either a synergy prize or the left-hand-doesn’t-know-what-the-right’s-doing award, inasmuch as sister channel USA is premiering a reality show, “Summer Camp,” the same week. Then again, both follow ABC Family’s sweet little gem about a camp for overweight kids, “Huge,” which didn’t make the cut ratings-wise and clearly deserved a better fate.
Sticking to familiar coming-of-age and family-drama themes, Griffiths’ Mackenzie is managing Little Otter Family Camp alone, since her husband (Jonathan LaPaglia) left her for a considerably younger woman. The strain of running things takes its toll, tempting her to sell out to the snotty camp across the lake and its owner, Roger (Rodger Corser), who she loathes and, naturally, with whom she can’t stop having one-night-stands. None of this goes unnoticed by the camp’s handsome handyman (Nikolai Nikolaeff), although Mackenzie somehow remains oblivious to his romantic interest.
As for the junior contingent, there’s Mackenzie’s son Buzz (Charles Grounds), who’s determined to lose his virginity (now there’s an original summer-camp goal); and Kip (Thom Green), another counselor-in-training who’s a nerd, reluctant to be there and harboring a secret.
There’s also a strained romance between senior counselors Robbie (Tim Pocock) and Sarah (Dena Kaplan), who begins a flirtation with a dreamy, much-older writer vacationing near the lake to work, just to ensure all cliched bases are covered.
Created by Liz Heldens (“Friday Night Lights”) and Peter Elkoff (“Deception”), the series is blunt about summer-camp extracurricular activities — from the kids getting high to their (and the adults’) preoccupation with getting laid — and cleverly uses contemporary pop-culture references to programs like “Game of Thrones.” In that respect, it does have the feel of a 10 p.m. drama despite the overt grab for younger viewers.
By the second hour, though, “Camp” has already resorted to a “capture the flag” team competition and a slow-motion water-balloon fight, and over-employed the device of having Mackenzie bare her deepest, darkest secrets to a small chorus of friends. The third hour rebounds only slightly, and by then it’s pretty clear an energetic and attractive cast isn’t enough to make the Down Under-lensed doings rise much above the mundane.
NBC has clearly made scheduling original scripted programming a priority this summer, almost all of it leveraging international financing or locales to ease the economic burden. Still, the overall effect comes across less as experimentation than simply hoping to get lucky with something cheap.
Hits have certainly happened that way, but to borrow an analogy from another popular summer pastime, it’s sort of like trying to get on base by laying down one bunt after another.