Lena Dunham’s ‘Camping’ Traps You in the Family Trip From Hell

If it weren’t for Jennifer Garner, HBO’s new comedy “Camping” would be left with little to offer other than the feeling of being trapped in a terrible road trip. As happens a lot with much current television, it takes a concept that might work for a movie and stretches it out into a whole season. It’s a self-contained setting where a jumpy mom tries to get family and friends together for a camping trip that of course goes off the rails. For one episode it can all be amusing, but for a whole season it’s not a sure bet.

Kathryn (Garner) has planned the perfect camping getaway to celebrate the 45th birthday of her husband Walt (David Tennant). She’s assembled a whole, precise list and schedule. Guests include George (Brett Gelman), Walt’s old college buddy and his wife Nina-Joy (Janicza Bravo), Kathryn’s sister Carleen (Ione Skye) and her husband Joe (Chris Sullivan), and another college buddy, Miguel (Arturo Del Puerto), who is getting over a recent breakup by dating a wild one named Jandice (Juliette Lewis). As soon as everyone arrives it’s obvious this is more of a misfit bunch, each bringing along their own issues. Before long Kathryn’s meticulous schedule is discarded as everyone starts doing their own thing, drinking too much and other activities which stress Kathryn to no end.

“Camping” is made of the elements that have been endless inspiration for whacky comedies. The road trip or wilderness venture is one of those go to plotlines. Creators Lena Dunham and Jennifer Konner, who both also helmed HBO’s “Girls,” try to give this approach a new spin by adding in some slight depth to the story. Kathryn is haunted by her surgery a few years ago in which has left her barren, and so this makes her prone to perceived symptoms that are not really there. Her anxiety is fueled even more by everyone refusing to follow her plans for the camping trip. This is the aspect of the show where Jennifer Garner shines. She’s a good actress lost in a stale show. She brings a humor and nervous likeability to the role, like people we come across who are always on edge about something. This is certainly a much better use of her talents than the recent, somewhat insane action movie “Peppermint.” Garner has a few moments of humorously annoying neurosis. Carleen arrives at the camp site and nonchalantly says she has brought her son, but Kathryn nearly makes her drive back because “the invitation said no kids.” She tries to get everyone to go birdwatching by a lake, but Jandice ruins it all by getting everyone to jump into the water for a swim. Juliette Lewis again plays the kind of scrappy role she’s always been doing since the 90s, with some moments of airheaded absurdity. Kathryn’s dislike for her could have made for a hilarious clash of opposites.

But “Camping” soon meanders and drags precisely like a bad road trip. It never convincingly gives us a reason to care for or follow these characters. The first four episodes made available for review function as nothing more than moments. We follow these misfits to a bar and watch them drink. George will get angry with Joe over an apparent racial joke aimed at Nina-Joy, Miguel and Jandice sloppily fool around wherever they can, including in a gift shop. Walt struggles with getting Kathryn to chill out. But there is no driving narrative here, no clear purpose. What exactly the showrunners want to say is unclear, and if they were aiming for just pure comedy then they should have worked a bit harder on the humor itself. Some comedies have famously worked by being about “nothing,” but that’s just a part of the approach, there is always an idea present. In “Camping” it’s all just one bad trip. Consider an episode where Kathryn goes to the hospital while the rest of the gang go have shots, it virtually leads to nowhere and the climactic twist is that George forgets to pick up some stakes for dinner. What in the world could be season 2? A trip to Disneyland?

All of “Camping” is simply a group of people, most of them quite unhappy, just lounging around a campsite. With some real verve this could have been funnier, with some more purpose it could have been meaningful. Instead we’re left feeling like the backseat passenger eager to go back home.

Camping” season one premieres Oct. 14 and airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on HBO.