Jennifer Garner is a woman in pain. As Camping’s Kathryn McSorley-Jodell — a high-strung wife, mother, and extremely minor Instagram celebrity — she suffers from a “dysfunctional pelvic floor,” inflamed “pipes,” regular bouts of candida, and “tissue issues.” Kathryn counters the chaos in her body by managing her family’s life with a rigid efficiency that would make the Navy jealous. The comedy (and pathos) of Camping, then, comes from the myriad ways life — and the hell known as other people — interferes with the meticulously engineered birthday trip Kathryn plans for her husband, Walt (David Tennant).
After securing the Groupon rate at the campground and mapping every minute of the excursion in her binder, Kathryn is poised to unleash four days of mandatory fun on Walt, son Orvis (Duncan Joiner), and the assembled couples — including her timid sister, Carlene (Ione Skye), and Joe (This is Us’ Chris Sullivan), Carlene’s recovering addict boyfriend, as well as Kathryn’s estranged friend Nina-Joy (Janicza Bravo) and her husband, George (Bravo’s real-life husband, Brett Gelman). Everyone is resigned to following their leader’s strict birthday-weekend itinerary — until Walt’s buddy Miguel (Arturo Del Puerto) shows up with his new girlfriend, Jandice (Juliette Lewis, bringing her usual dose of effortless lunacy), a free-spirited reiki healer/notary who instantly derails the micro-managed proceedings.
Just as Kathryn is such a tyrannically attentive hostess that no one wants to be around her, Camping — adapted from the British series by Girls duo Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner — is initially off-putting with its onslaught of broad humor. Kathryn’s obsessiveness, which seems to be fueled by a deep-seated misery, is played for maximum laughs early on, while Jandice and her manic-hippie-sex-goddess antics — jelly donut shots for everyone! — is just this side of exhausting. But when Camping allows itself to dial back the quirk, it delivers some laugh-out-loud moments and emotional observations about marriage and femininity. Sullivan is clearly having a ball playing the foul-mouthed, ill-tempered Joe, while Tennant is adorable and poignant as Walt, a man as determinedly easygoing as his wife is anxious.
Even when Kathryn is at her most extreme, Garner’s innate humanity helps infuse her character with a woeful relatability. Kathryn is so at war with the pressures of being a modern woman — a hyper-organized, successful, people-pleasing caretaker of everyone but herself — that she literally had her entire female reproductive system removed in a hysterectomy five years ago. But still, the pain lingers. Four episodes in, Camping has yet to offer any hints as to the cause of Kathryn’s sadness, but we do know it will not be contained. “You can feel fine,” she tells Orvis, “but also know that you are a ticking time bomb.” Camping is not perfect, but if it allows Jennifer Garner to explode with the white-hot rage of aggrieved womanhood, it will all be worth it. B
Camping premieres Sunday, Oct. 14, at 10 p.m. on HBO.