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Review: Unhappy 'Camping' in a new comedy from Lena Dunham

Review: Unhappy 'Camping' in a new comedy from Lena Dunham
David Tennant and Jennifer Garner play a married couple on a difficult long weekend in the HBO comedy "Camping." (Anne Marie Fox/HBO)

"Camping," which premieres Sunday on HBO, comes from Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner, who worked on HBO's "Girls" together, and obliquely of Julia Davis, the British comedian and writer who created the U.K. series this one is modeled on. A midlife comedy, with a tendency toward caricature, it is nothing at all like "Girls."

Walt (David Tennant, Scottish playing American) is turning 45, and to mark the occasion — celebrate isn't quite the word — his wife Kathryn (Jennifer Garner) has organized a camping trip with friends and some family, with the emphasis on "organized." With her fanny pack and clipboard, Kathryn is a scheduler, a control freak without control and chronic overreactor, especially as concerns the health of their son, Orvis (Duncan Joiner), a normally healthy child she regards as more fragile than spun sugar. Garner plays her as stiff, with hard edges and sharp angles. Tennnant plays Walt as patient.

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Sharing the weekend are Walt's friends George (Brett Gelman, notching another sitcom on his much notched sitcom gun) and Miguel (Arturo Del Puerto). Walter's longtime partner Nina-Joy (Janicza Bravo) is on the outs with Kathryn over something not immediately revealed, but which Kathryn so desperately wants to repair that one wonders whether the weekend was arranged specifically so Nina-Joy would have to talk to her.

Ione Skye and Janicza Bravo are less than happy campers in the HBO comedy "Camping."
Ione Skye and Janicza Bravo are less than happy campers in the HBO comedy "Camping." (Anne Marie Fox/HBO)

Miguel, whose wife has left him for a waiter, has arrived with a new, uninvited girlfriend, Jandice (Juliette Lewis), "a DJ, a reiki healer, I make and sell my own net cheeses and I do some modeling for this figure drawing class, and I'm a notary," alternately arching her back and leaning forward in a way that oddly recalls Mick Jagger onstage. They have a lot of sex. (Kathryn and Walt wear matching plaid pajamas and do not.)

Filling out the campground are Kathryn's accommodating sister, Carleen (Ione Skye) — "You follow from the front,” Kathryn tells her, “it confuses people” — and her caustic husband Joe (Chris Sullivan), a not exactly recovering substance abuser who left his 30-day recovery chip as a tip at a Denny's. They are toting his (uninvited) teenage daughter, Sol (Cheyenne Haynes), suspended from school for bringing a knife to chorus. He is less than happy to be there, and she is unhappier. But none of these campers is really happy, or liable to be hanging out together anywhere other than a television show.

Kathryn has pains and conditions, some of which might be psychosomatic, but all of which remain forefront in her mind. When we first see her, she's wearing a sweatshirt with "Intl. Women's Pain Conference, Sydney #Painfully Strong" printed on the back. It is a little hard to know how to take all this, since we are invited to — directed to — find her ridiculous, even as we get gruesome details about ailments we are apparently supposed to take as real.

Arturo Del Puerto, Ione Skye, Brett Gelman, Jennifer Garner and Janicza Bravo in the new HBO comedy "Camping."
Arturo Del Puerto, Ione Skye, Brett Gelman, Jennifer Garner and Janicza Bravo in the new HBO comedy "Camping." (Anne Marie Fox/HBO)

Similarly, that Joe is an alcoholic who will be spending much of this long weekend drinking hardly registers as much as a quizzical look or concerned comment from anyone other than his wife; is his drinking supposed to be funny? I don't know. I suppose it may lead to something in the two episodes not yet available for review. Perhaps that is just how people really are.

The show runs hot and cold — well, warm and cold — depending on who’s on screen; not all these characters have been created equally deep. But Skye stands out, not as a laugh-getter particularly, but as a person you might encounter in real life and not easily sum up; you feel she has feelings, and not just comical reactions. Lewis, who does play a caricature, nevertheless stands out as well, playing her ridiculousness as reasonable.

These are all talented people in this thing (Bridget Everett is here, too, as the woman who runs the camp, and there are guest shots from Busy Philipps and Nicole Richie, glamping), and sometimes they have interesting things to do, and sometimes they are merely pleasant to watch, and sometimes, depending on what they have to say, less pleasant. Sometimes they are just people on a screen who will be gone soon. But these conditions change rapidly, and if you are inclined to keep watching, you may see something you like before long. The rest you can duly note.

But if you have ever wanted to see David Tennant's knees, or any inch at all of Juliette Lewis, this is the show for you.

‘Camping’

Where: HBO

When: 10 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)

Sunday 10 p.m. HBO

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