Anything Lena Dunham does after Girls is going is get major attention. For several years, the era-defining series brought commensurate amounts of adulation and derision. Dunham’s coming-of-age character, Hannah, was as compelling as she was irritatingly precious.
The series was a comedy, mind you, and often much less a portrait of a generation than it was perceived to be. And complicated comedy is what Dunham (and creative partner Jenni Konner) is doing again. Regrettably, it looks like an epic misfire.
Camping (Sunday, HBO, 9 p.m.) is a small-scale creative outing, far from epic, and literally about a family-and-friends outing to the countryside. (Dunham isn’t in it, but she’s the force behind it.) It’s about middle-class, pretentious people and at its core is the most annoying mom on the planet, one Kathryn McSorley-Jodell (Jennifer Garner.) We watch in increasing awe as Kathryn does one squirm-inducing thing after another.
The premise, based on the British series of the same title, created by Julia Davis, is concise. To celebrate husband Walt (David Tennant) on his 45th birthday, Kathryn organizes a few days away at a camping site. Everything is planned down to the last minute of activity. A select group of family and pals is invited. The first to turn up is Kathryn’s docile sister Carleen (Ione Skye) and Kathryn immediately suggests her sister leave because, unknown to her, Carleen has brought her boyfriend and his daughter from a previous marriage, Sol (Cheyenne Haynes). No kids was the rule, except for Kathryn’s own, much coddled boy, Orvis.
Kathryn’s fussing over Orvis is a good part of the comedy. Also, her obsession with the fact that she had a hysterectomy a few years earlier. The phrase “Mommy’s pelvic floor” is a running joke and you are meant to cringe when Kathryn snaps, “My pipes are inflamed!” She’s the sort of person who says, “Let’s make eye contact with each other” to get over some embarrassment she’s caused. Into this gaggle of bourgeois people who are afraid of Kathryn’s intensity comes Jandice (Juliette Lewis), a free-spirited bohemian and new girlfriend to Kathryn and Walt’s friend Miguel.
Jandice says things such as “hospitals make you sick,” believes she’s a healer of some sort and, on the first sight of a lake near the campground, goes skinny-dipping, while Kathryn bellows, “There may be brain-eating amoebas in there! Let me remind you that none of you is wearing sunscreen!”
The Kathryn figure isn’t funny. At all. Neither is her foil, Jandice, who is, simply, a moron. (The CBC show Baroness von Sketch mocks these types of female figures much more deftly in 60-second sketches.) Not funny in the slightest, too, is meek husband Walt, and you watch David Tennant with some amazement that he signed up for this disaster.
Far be it from any fella to tell Lena Dunham she’s wrong, but this critic believes she’s completely misinterpreted the original Camping and the comedy style of Julia Davis. Davis is unique. She sets out to make the audience uncomfortable by mining the lack of a moral compass in people from a very particular stratum in the British class system. Her characters are not being mocked. Her characters are appalling because there is a deep emptiness inside them. They are bored, melancholy and push boundaries of behaviour because their lives are so limited. What Dunham might see as satire is nothing of the sort – it’s a cry for help from the depths of weariness.
Camping isn’t fun to watch at all. By all means, watch it just to see a misfire take shape. (There are eight half-hour episodes.) The actors seem driven by an idea, not by pleasure in the script or working together. Yes, it’s hilarious to watch Kathryn’s hysteria. For all of two minutes. Find the work of Julia Davis – Nighty Night is a true classic – rather than this wretchedness.
Also airing thus weekend – A Day in the Life of Earth (Sunday, CBC on The Nature of Things) is a lovely, eye-popping nature documentary that sets out to show how the Earth changes on a scale that plays out every day. The point is to dispel our notion that it takes millions of years for the Earth to truly change.
A Canada/Britain co-production it shows us how, over 24 hours, shifts in the tectonic plates create a new Earth surface in acres, not millimetres. We watch volcanoes spew lava and see how an underwater cave can change shape in a matter of hours. This isn’t one of those ominous warnings about the environment. It’s a celebration of the Earth’s mysterious content and how everything is truly, magically connected.