Jennifer Garner’s Return to TV is a mixed blessing
Throughout her entire career, Jennifer Garner’s characters have always had a high degree of Everywoman to them, even in her most famous role as secret agent Sydney Bristow on Alias. Most of her better film roles — the desperate to be mother in Juno, the nurse in Dallas Buyers Club — have focused in on that likeability. It is therefore very intriguing that in her return to television in HBO’s Camping, Garner has chosen a character as far removed from that as possible.
Garner plays Kathryn, a mid-forties wife and mother, who has planned to the nth degree a camping trip to celebrate her husband Walt’s (David Tennant), 45th birthday. She has invited three couples, Carleen (Ione Skye) her sister, and her husband Joe (This is Us’ Chris Sullivan), Walt’s brother George (Brett Gelman) and his wife. and their friend Miguel and his wife. From the start, its clear that Kathryn utterly refuses to tolerate any deviation in her schedule which has been planned minute by minute. It’s amazing that everybody has been willing to tolerate this, frankly, but it’s clear Kathryn is in a class by herself. We hear she suffered through ten operation for an injured back, including a double hysterectomy. And one can tell almost from the beginning, that something is going to go horribly wrong. We just don’t know how until happens. Miguel is going through an ugly divorce, and initially doesn’t plan to show up. Then late at night in the Pilot he does — with the quintessential New Ager Jandice. She’s played by Juliette Lewis, which, in itself, should tell you everything you need to know about her.
The first episode I thought was very amusing, but in the second episode, the spiraling clearly gets out of hand. During a touch football game, Jandice ends up putting Walt and Kathryn’s son out of action. Kathryn insists on driving him to the nearest hospital anyway, and utterly refuses to accept the doctor’s diagnosis that her son is fine. Meanwhile, the rest of the group ends up driving, per Jandice suggestion (of course) to a nearby town, and everybody gets seriously drunk. Including Joe, who is a recent alcoholic. Jandice and Miguel then leave the bar and end up in a store, where they have sex in the changing room. When they get back, Jandice then gives the drunk Joe Oxy, and he and George have a bizarre fight over a weird term he refers to his bi-racial wife by.
Camping alternates between being very funny, with the very disgusting body humor, and some jokes that straddle the line between funny and offensive. Perhaps this shouldn’t come as a huge shock, consider that the series has its origins from a British TV series, and was adapted by Lena Dunham, the force behind Girls, a series I still consider one of the most overrated of the decade. Garner does a fairly good job of playing a control freak, even though it can be off-putting at times. But Lewis drags down every scene she is. I realize that this is by design — she’s not so much a real character as the instrument of disruption — but all the other characters so far have at least some degree of humanity. Jandice’s sole purpose seems to be to bring out the worst aspect in everyone.
What makes this show watchable are the other supporting performances, particularly Tennant. Best known as one of the great Doctors of all time, Tennant has a superbly drawn American accent, and plays a very restrained man who just wants everybody to be happy, including Kathryn, even though this may be scientifically impossible. There’s also good work from Sullivan, playing against type who gets really angry when someone offends him, and Skye who has been absent from everywhere for awhile.
Camping has some good parts to it that generally work well, but you wonder just how the writers are going to sustain it. It’s only an eight episode season, but it was renewed for Season 2 before it even premiered. Throw in the fact that Dunhan and her long time writing partner Jenni Konner ended their partnership not long after they began work on this series, and you really question how long it can last. But it’s good to see a lot of the actors here, particularly Garner. This shows her range in a way we haven’t seen in far too long.
My score: 3.25 stars.