There is an art to making comedy about irritating, self-involved, or even just flat-out terrible people. Sharp writing can make such characters wickedly funny, spitting jokes like acid that sting as hard as they land (see: “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”); it can peel back their defensive spiky layers to find surprising depth and tenderness hiding just underneath (see: “You’re the Worst”). But no matter what the approach, there has to be some dynamism in order to keep the story afloat, some glancing indication that the comedy’s got a little more to it than just showing off the depraved depths to which its characters could sink.
“Camping,” apparently, missed this memo.
The new HBO series — from “Girls” creators Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner, based on a series by British comedian Julia Davis — strands a group of deeply irritating people out in the woods together for eight episodes worth of misery. While they’re technically out there to celebrate Walt’s (David Tennant) birthday, they find themselves camping by a strictly regimented agenda as laid out in painstaking detail by his wife, Kathryn (Jennifer Garner), whose many surgeries and chronic pains have left her unwilling to leave much of anything up to chance.
It only takes a few minutes for her plan to unravel. Her meeker sister, Carleen (Ione Syke), and her sporadically sober husband unexpectedly bring his surly teen daughter (Cheyenne Haynes). Walt’s brother, George (Brett Gelman), tries to help everyone have a good time, though he’s seemingly oblivious to the fact that his partner Nina-Joy (Janicza Bravo) is miserable being around Kathryn at all. (And not for nothing, the show seems oblivious to any personality traits Nina-Joy might have outside of her mysterious tension with Kathryn.) Meanwhile, their friend Miguel (Arturo Del Puerto) is dealing with a very messy and recent separation by having sex with a New Age hippie fling (Juliette Lewis) in almost every corner of the campsite.
Garner and Lewis in particular throw themselves into their parts, while recurring guests like Bridget Everett and Busy Philipps are welcome highlights. No matter how good the performers are, however, the story rarely gives their audience a compelling reason to get invested in the outcome of all its toxic chaos. After screening four episodes — fully half of the season — I still don’t know what the point of “Camping” is beyond tossing together some talented performers for the fun of it.
There are certainly some moments when Dunham and Konner show off their skill for depicting self-absorption circa 2018, especially when Kathryn tries to push everyone into becoming part of her Instagram #brand and Nina-Joy stumbles upon a campsite of drawling Los Angeles influencers (led by Philipps in a telltale wide-brimmed hat). Occasionally, Garner manages to find another gear in Kathryn’s high-strung anxiety, revealing how her longstanding health issues have shaped her insecurity and fear. But for the most part, the series wastes its potential, showing so little insight or movement that watching “Camping” becomes nearly as unpleasant as it is for the characters living through it.
Comedy, 30 mins. (8 episodes; four reviewed.) Premieres Sunday, Oct.14 at 10 pm on HBO.
Cast: Jennifer Garner, David Tennant, Ione Skye, Arturo Del Puerto, Brett Gelman, Janicza Bravo, Cheyenne Haynes, Duncan Joiner, Juliette Lewis.