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'Camping' review: Aside from Jennifer Garner, the series is difficult to bear

Jennifer Garner, Brett Gelman, Janicza Bravo and David

Jennifer Garner, Brett Gelman, Janicza Bravo and David Tennant are in the not-so-great outdoors in HBO's "Camping." Photo Credit: HBO/Anne Marie Fox

THE SERIES "Camping"

WHEN | WHERE Premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on HBO

WHAT IT'S ABOUT For her husband Walt's (David Tennant) 45th birthday, Kathryn McSorley-Jodell (Jennifer Garner) has organized a very special camping trip out in the wilds of California. They arrive at Brown Bear Lake and the rather humdrum campsite, and things immediately begin to go wrong. Kathryn's a control freak, but control of any sort is futile, especially when an assortment of family — including sister Carleen (Ione Skye) — and friends arrive. They include recently separated Miguel (Arturo Del Puerto) and his new girlfriend/free spirit, Jandice (Juliette Lewis), self-described as a DJ, reiki healer "and notary." Meanwhile, Kathryn has medical issues, and a bear is lurking in the dark. Soon everything goes to hell. "Camping" — based on a British show — was written and produced by former "Girls" showrunners Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner.

MY SAY "Camping" is Dunham and Konner's first project for HBO since "Girls" and may well be the last. As reported in a recent New York Times profile, they ended their collaboration before this series wrapped production, and obviously, from that little revelation the suspicions only mount, beginning with "why?" Was "Camping" so misbegotten that it fractured one of the most successful creative relationships on TV of the decade? Can shows have bad mojo?  

Watch "Camping" for any length of time — five minutes, should about do it — and the answers would seem to coalesce. Sure they can, or at least this one can. Not that "Camping" is terrible, although it can be, and it's certainly not misbegotten either. Based on a Britcom by Julia Davis, who is a major star and showrunner in her own right, "Camping" was essentially gift wrapped for Dunham and Konner. What could go wrong?

What appears to have gone wrong is that this wasn't their show to begin with. "Girls" was, and for better or worse "Girls" established then perfected their tone, style and voice. "Girls" was all theirs. "Camping" belongs to someone else. It feels that way, in every frame

American adaptations of Brit-hits have occasionally worked, in two instances spectacularly well ("All in the Family," "The Office") but more often than not bomb ("Skins" and "Coupling" are maybe the most egregious examples). Something gets lost in the translation and occasionally that "something" is as simple as the setting. The Brown Bear Lake campsite of this show actually looks like a place where TV crews have shuttled in and out of for decades. It's generic as opposed to rustic or even particularly believable. Worse, it's not funny, just dull.

Garner's Kathryn is the heart of the show and the best part of it too, but she's an enigma, and less a comic one than an emotional one. Other than setting up what "Camping" wants and tries to be — a farce — why would she organize a camping trip in the first place? A control freak, she soon learns that camping has an almost sinister way of demolishing those best laid plans. They do here, although in entirely predictable ways. Tennant is largely wasted as her foil: He can't seem to make sense of any of this, much less find anything amusing in it either.

"Camping" does have a good, energetic cast but they too never quite find their groove as fish-out-of-water in this would-be fish-out-of-water farce. Like Dunham and Konner, they all seem like they'd rather be someplace else — anyplace else would do.

BOTTOM LINE Garner's good but "Camping" is bad.

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