How do you follow up Girls? Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner’s series, which ended just a year and a half ago, occupied an outsize place underneath the cultural microscope, thanks largely to Dunham, that human cilantro, loved by some, loathed by others. The rancorous passion surrounding Dunham created for Girls an echo chamber, one that multiplied its reach while distorting its message. Girls was, among other things, a bomb thrown upon the notion of the “likable” female protagonist, building its comedy out of the grotesque smithereens left behind. But even as the show twisted Dunham’s Hannah Horvath like a neck turned 360 degrees, doing everything it could to cleave the real Dunham from her millennial gorgon doppelgänger, the cut was never complete: The show was still seen as a referendum on Dunham, her self-awareness, her politics, her body, her being, her penchant for doing millennial gorgon stuff. How you felt about Hannah and how you felt about Lena were not the same, but they were not quite separate either, and this dogged Girls even as it was part of its sticky comedic power.
On first glance, the limited series Camping, Dunham and Konner’s follow-up, seems like something very different. Based on a British series and premiering on HBO on Sunday night, it’s set in California on a four-day camping trip. It features four couples played by actors a generation older than those on Girls (including recognizable Gen Xers Juliette Lewis and Say Anything’s Ione Skye) and stars Jennifer Garner, that human chocolate chip, loved by some, loved still more by others. But Garner has been cast against type. Her character, Kathryn, is a Type A control freak, a narcissist who thinks she’s a caregiver. (Not to muddy the waters too much, but she’s a total Marnie.) Belittling, petty, self-obsessed, with a whopper of a victim complex, she’s the sort of person who steals every mattress at a campsite for herself—she had to, you see, her pelvic floor is a weak. Rather than being a departure, Camping is a kind of control to the experiment that was Girls: a show that is also about a seriously off-putting female protagonist but one in which that protagonist is not played by Lena Dunham, a person people love to hate, but Jennifer Garner, a person people love to love. Results may vary.
The occasion for the camping trip is a birthday, that of Kathryn’s cheerful, henpecked husband, Walt (David Tennant), with whom she has one son, a quiet kid who is sporadically, suffocatingly parented. They are joined by three other couples, who tolerate Kathryn largely for Walt’s sake. There’s Kathryn’s kind, pushover sister Carleen (Skye) and her on-and-off-the-wagon partner Joe (This Is Us’s Chris Sullivan). Nina-Joy (Janicza Bravo), a former close friend of Kathryn’s, is hoping to escape the weekend without having to talk about their schism; her husband, George, is played by Bravo’s spouse in real life, Brett Gelman. And finally there’s newly separated friend Miguel (Arturo Del Puerto), who arrives with an unexpected guest—and the fly in the ointment—his new girlfriend, Jandice (Lewis).
Lewis, unlike Garner, has been cast perfectly to type; Jandice is a wild free spirit with a hard edge. She’s a reiki healer, a casual drug user, a highly sexual being—in short, a total Jessa. Loose instead of uptight; charming, not irritating; unencumbered rather than married: She seems like Kathryn’s opposite and, initially, like her match. Unlike all of the other guests, who know Kathryn and find her immensely irritating but pitiable, Jandice is willing to challenge Kathryn’s control-freakery. But as the series progresses, it becomes clear Kathryn and Jandice are not as different as they first seem. Jandice’s do-whatever-you-want vibe is really a do-whatever-I-want insistence, a more effective means of getting her own way. The show begins to orbit around the tension between these two women—a faceoff between the Cool Girl and Tracy Flick.
Garner gives unlikability her all, but it comes across as pretending: She doesn’t seem like a real person or even, as she should, like an outsize exaggeration of a real person. And this is true despite the fact that Kathryn and Dunham share a health history. Kathryn, like Dunham, has had a hysterectomy, following 10 procedures under anesthesia. She’s not over the trauma of these experiences and thinks of herself as fundamentally sick, deeply unwell, even though she looks, in the words of another character, like a “bionic sex leopard.” Kathryn’s fixation on her health, her grief, and her discomfort seems to everyone around her like a sad yet sorry excuse for her behavior, particularly as it pertains to her and Walt’s nonexistent sex life. Here, as with Girls, we are on a kind of extratextual quicksand, where Camping is making fun of Kathryn’s high-strung hypochondriac ways—her “phantom periods”—even though that making fun seems, to anyone who knows of Dunham’s much-shared experience, an incomplete picture, maybe even a default self-protection. Is Dunham getting to the jokes before anyone else can? There’s a sadness to that, but there’s a hardness too. What there’s not is Dunham, the volatile agent whose larger-than-fiction persona makes the experiment so singular. Without her, the results are standard: another perfectly serviceable series about awful people, but not a special one.