At first blush, Jennifer Garner’s performance as Kathryn—a high-strung hypochondriac, domineering wife, and helicopter mom—is severe enough to seem out of place in Camping, which is, on its face, a comedy. The HBO series takes place on a camping trip Kathryn organized for her husband, Walt (David Tennant), and their friends for Walt’s birthday. Tensions, of course, run high, and conflict and hilarity naturally ensue. Throughout, Garner commits to her character’s worst tendencies: She plays Kathryn as an open nerve, emphasizing her cruel glare whenever she lashes out at unintended visitors, and bulging her veins as proceedings stray from the woman’s itinerary. Garner’s frantic performance hints, intentionally perhaps, at an undiagnosed or unacknowledged mental illness, and is the first clue that there may be more to Camping than its familiar veneer of domestic comedy.
Created and co-written by Lena Dunham, Camping is replete with characters who are more layered than they initially appear. Kathryn and Walt’s friend Joe (Chris Sullivan) is a rehab regular and seemingly destructive macho type, but he’s easily cowed by Kathryn and appears mostly numb as the weekend wears on. Sullivan slouches and shuffles through most of his scenes, letting his meaty face droop and revealing the sad-sack loser behind his character’s imposing frame. Eventually, the series lets on that Joe’s first wife died of leukemia. And, indeed, whenever the secrets and histories of the other campers are similarly revealed, Camping is able to effectively complement its comedy-of-manners humor with emotional catharsis.
Dunham and the show’s writers have created a memorable harbinger of such catharsis in a camper named Jandice (Juliette Lewis), a free spirit who ruins one of Kathryn’s days by skinny dipping and one of Kathryn’s nights by accidentally dosing her with Adderall. The series homes in on Jandice’s vapidity: She’s a self-proclaimed “DJ, Reiki healer, cheese-maker, and model for a stick figure studio,” and the joke is that she’s mostly fully of shit. The campsite is crawling with people who lack self-awareness, and the show’s writers use Jandice as a blunt instrument: to shake the other couples from their false complacency. Each of her scenes is the source of a new conflict, and she provides the show’s most effectively cringe-worthy humor.
Humor cushions some of the drama in Camping, but the series is unafraid, in other instances, to focus entirely on a character’s sadness. During a fishing trip, Walt sheepishly divulges that he and Kathryn haven’t had sex in two years—a moment of shame and vulnerability that’s met with disbelief by Joe, who, apparently in protest, throws a childish tantrum. Joe’s antics, however, unfold mostly in the margins of the scene. Walt continues his wrenching confession, not as fodder for more comedic overreactions, but as a way for Camping to communicate the character’s fear. Walt seems, early in the series, to be the comedic ideal of a henpecked husband. Yet owing to Tennant’s low-key performance, and the show’s attention to Walt’s love for Kathryn (he defends her earnestly throughout), we understand his sexual yearning as a need to regain closeness with his wife—instead of the primal masculine urges that are more common comedic fodder in your average comedy.
Camping foreshadows calamity as Walt’s birthday wears on. A gun, albeit one filled with BB’s, is introduced in the show’s first five minutes, and regular reminders of its existence ensure us that as the camping trip unravels, someone’s likely to use it. There’s also some swirling, ill-defined sexual tension at play between certain campers, which will likely bubble to the forefront in later episodes. Aside from those plot points which telegraph future hilarity, Camping focuses primarily on why things happen rather than merely striving toward hijinks. The four episodes available in advance of the show’s premiere suggest that Camping‘s biggest reveal will clarify why Kathryn recoils at Walt’s touch, and why she relentlessly seeks sympathy for a frankly common procedure she underwent years ago. To the show’s credit, the truth seems likely to come as a clever shock.