ENTERTAINMENT
10/13/2018 09:25 am ET Updated Oct 13, 2018

Jennifer Garner Leans Into Unlikability For HBO’s ‘Camping'

In the new Lena Dunham comedy, the actress stars as a woman more insufferable than any "Girls" character.
Jennifer Garner stars in HBO's "Camping."
Jennifer Garner stars in HBO's "Camping."

“I think I might be the voice of my generation,” an in-character Lena Dunham famously proclaimed in her inaugural HBO series, “Girls,” before quickly adding, “Or, at least, voice of a generation.”

The declaration became an albatross for the series and its creator, who lamented that it will likely be etched on her tombstone. For all of Hannah Horvath’s misplaced millennial bravado, though, Dunham wasn’t too far off. The generation she spoke of ― young, wealthy, mostly white and liberal Brooklyn transplants ― came of age over the course of the series’ inconsistent but always watchable six seasons. Meanwhile, Dunham became the de facto spokesperson for struggling and self-inflated 20-somethings, whether we related to her or not. (And if you weren’t a member of at least a few of the above groups, most of the time it was a hard not.) 

“Camping,” a new limited HBO series from Dunham and co-creator Jenni Konner, attempts to capture what happens to said generation when they settle down, get their shit together and go on a camping trip ― with, of course, the major caveat that none of Dunham’s creations ever truly have their shit together.

Adapted from a British series of the same name, “Camping” follows a group of couples as they venture into the wilderness to celebrate Walt (David Tennant) on his 45th birthday. Walt’s wife, Kathryn (Jennifer Garner), wears the pants here ― or the Lululemon leggings, to be precise ― as she micromanages the rest of the party, including Walt’s best friend George (Brett Gelman) and his girlfriend, Nina-Joy (Janicza Bravo); her meek sister Carleen (Ione Sky) and her recently sober boyfriend (Chris Sullivan); and the newly single Miguel (Arturo Del Puerto), who has taken up with the reiki healer Jandice (Juliette Lewis).

The show is essentially one big bottle episode, with a core cast of characters forced to navigate the intimacy of a confined setting. Much hinges on Garner’s performance, and on the amount of patience you are willing to extend to a character who’s more unlikable than Hannah Horvath on her worst day. Kathryn is a chronic pain sufferer, stemming from the difficult delivery of her son, Orvis (Duncan Joiner), and has since undergone a hysterectomy. It’s not a flattering portrait ― though neither is it uninformed; Dunham underwent a hysterectomy of her own in December ― as constant talk of Kathryn’s pelvic floor grates everyone around her. She has, however, mined the body trauma for a mildly popular Instagram page, a nice nod to Garner’s own Insta-fame

There’s something admirable in turning the viewer so vehemently against an actress we’ve grown accustomed to rooting for on and off screen. It’s a welcome departure from the roles Garner has been saddled with lately, and it lets her flex some non-literal muscles for once. The onetime “Alias” star relishes being bad here, and as things on the trip inevitably go awry, she’s pushed closer to her breaking point. Only a performer as endearing as Garner could play a role so unappealing and get out unscathed. (Dunham herself has described the actress as “the most charming person in American history,” telling Rolling Stone, “She could walk right up to me and go, ‘I’ve killed your mom and I’ve taken your boyfriend,’ and I’d be like, ‘Well, that’s your right.’”)

Garner’s scenes with Lewis, whom she played opposite in the underrated “Catch and Release,” are where the series finds most of its laughs, as Jandice seems precision-engineered to drive Kathryn up the wall. She laughs in the face of conventional medicine, undermines the weekend’s highly detailed schedule, skinny-dips in front of children and has ear-shattering sex with reckless abandon.

The rest of the cast, however, fades into the background; the show suffers when it diverts attention from this central power struggle. Kathryn is unsympathetic in mostly refreshing ways, but everyone else’s personal failings feel generic at best. 

As Dunham has proven time and again, we don’t need to like her characters to feel something for them. Even at its most myopic, “Girls” frequently captured something true about misadventures in adulting, as Dunham and company parsed the more universal experiences of their age group ― self-discovery, heartbreak, loneliness, etc. ― with bracing wit and empathy.

But “Camping” is at serious risk of being too acerbic for its own good. Over the course of the first four episodes screened for critics, the characters’ bad behavior piles up without justification. During an Adderall-induced escapade, Kathryn bemoans her sister’s wasted uterus only to launch into a chant about how many times her boyfriend has gone to rehab in front of welcome guest stars Busy Philipps, Nicole Richie and Hari Nef. Moments later, she drops a bombshell on their relationship without batting an eye, as though asking for a weather update.

These people are just terrible. Sure, there are hints as to why (and more will almost certainly be revealed by the season’s end), but without the show grounding any of their actions in humanity, the campers, especially Garner’s Kathryn, just feel like caricatures.

Maybe their missteps are harder to forgive because we assume with age should come even the slightest bit of wisdom. The cringeworthy lack of self-awareness in the “Camping” characters is harder to excuse because these aren’t floundering 20-somethings wreaking havoc on their relationships and not knowing any better. They are fully grown adults who’ve somehow moved through life as walking nightmares with little consequence.

By the time Garner’s character gripes over losing a game of “I spy” to her own son, I couldn’t help but think it’s about time for this generation to grow the hell up.

“Camping” premieres Sunday on HBO.

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