Unhappy ‘Camping’

By Lauren Carroll Harris
Lena Dunham’s new comedy series is an accidental portrait of toxic femininity

Jennifer Garner in Camping. Image: Foxtel

A Californian nightmare – as Lena Dunham recently described her new show, Camping, during its US press tour – by any definition, would include the following dramatic set-up: a 45th birthday party at a glamping destination in the woods, a wife in existential meltdown, and a toxic collection of resentful, journalling friends. As a satire swinging at middle-class obliviousness, it is loaded with comic richness. So why does Camping (airing on Fox Showcase), co-created with Dunham’s long-term (and now former) collaborator Jenni Konner, feel so austere and punishing?

Dunham’s on-screen avatar is Kathryn (Jennifer Garner), an over-anxious, very thorough woman, whose Instagram profile – aimed at working women suffering from chronic illness – is cresting 11,000 followers since her recovery from a hysterectomy. She is determined to stage the perfect outdoorsy, friendsy weekend to mark her husband Walt’s birthday. Archetypically sketched by David Tennant, Walt is the gangly, beta-husband, who serves rather than checks his wife’s hypochondria, even when she’s verging on Munchausen syndrome by proxy. But by the end of episode one, the group has diverged from Kathryn’s hourly schedule, and by episode two, they’ve skived off to drink jello-donut shots, while Kathryn and Walt take their son to a hospital for a non-existent ailment.

Dunham has recently reoriented her own selfie-driven social media presence towards self-help for those suffering acute health issues. And in Camping, it becomes clear that she is projecting beyond her 32-year-old identity, away from her on-screen persona as a messy millennial, by envisioning Kathryn as an alpha-female, whose ambitions, and sense of her own womanhood, have been mangled. It’s as if the girls from Girls have aged 15 years, started shopping at Gap and bunkered down into middle-aged disappointment.

The original UK version of Camping, by English writer and actor Julia Davis, was a work of comic monstrosity. Davis, wry and empathetic, starred as the loose new unit who disrupts the old friendship group (a benzo-crunching nymphomaniac now brought to vivid life by Juliette Lewis). Along with Sharon Horgan (of the hard-edged anti-romance sitcom Catastrophe), Davis has spent the last few years spearheading a particular brand of brutally, femininely shadowy comedy: the graver a dramatic circumstance, the funnier it is.

That approach – not of cringe comedy, but of car-crash comedy – rarely squares with the sparkle-eyed American moral code in which self-improvement is possible and progress is inevitable. Davis’s British, grimacing uptightness is now Dunham’s buzzing neurosis, slicked with HBO gloss. Worse, there is now something to learn.

Kathryn and her frenemies speak in a hyper-American blend of psychobabble, new ageism and childish entitlement. As in Girls, Dunham’s characters insistently voice their core motivations without nuance or subtext. “I know we’re not in such a great place at the moment,” says Kathryn to one of her victims. “I’m hoping we can restore some balance.” Freud gave us knowledge of repression, the ego, the id, the superego, dreams, transference and psychoanalysis, and American popular culture has converted that knowledge into sledgehammer dialogue.

There’s some glee to be found in the details of the writing and the design: these are people who listen to All Things Considered on NPR; who wear “Don’t hate, meditate” T-shirts; whose wives leave them for waiters who work at “9021-Pho”. But much of the comedy follows an algorithmically programmed obviousness. Of course there’s a group selfie scene. Of course the prissy tenseness of Kathryn’s sister, Carleen, played with great self-awareness by Ione Skye, is signalled with Mormon-esque braids.

And of course there’s a monologue, inviting sincerity and empathy, that allows Kathryn to explain the sources of her control freakery (“We’re waiting to see if either Orvis or Mommy loses consciousness,” she intones to her son in a sky-blue hospital bed while the camera zooms in importantly. “That’s the weird thing about life, Orvy. You can feel fine and yet also know that you are a ticking time bomb. It’s the scariest part of being human.”) Because neither Dunham nor Konner have the instinct to pierce their characters’ jugulars, Camping becomes an accidental portrait of toxic femininity.

The other supporting actors – Skye, Lewis, Brett Gelman, Bridget Everett – operate in a more knowing comic mode. There are also some minor laughs at the expense of the show’s white dudes – the kind of people who call one another “my brother” and send black-guy emojis when texting a POC. And yet there’s something about these jokes that feels cynically designed to serve as a response to the early criticisms of the soft racism of Girls’ white, watertight world. With anvil direction that intensely drives down on every single gag, underlining what the physical comedy has already told us, the only thing missing is a dictatorial laugh track.

Occasionally Dunham and Konner hit a LOL (“Vitamins actually saved my life,” flips Kathryn). But the show’s satirical lens is inherently warped by its creators’ own blind spots regarding the crises of the overprivileged. Would Gwyneth Paltrow be the best person to skewer the wellness industry?

That Camping represents Dunham’s worst, rather than her best, is evident in her choice of Jennifer Garner is as the actor to play Kathryn. Garner operates in the same relentlessly cartoonish comic mode as Anne Hathaway or Sarah Jessica Parker. The persona that she brings on-screen is more convoluted: first, an ass-kicking TV star who was called the sexist woman alive; then, a romcom machine who didn’t strike a hit film in years; and then, a wholesome, divorced, cheated-on mom whose primary role in the entertainment industry has been to appear on magazine covers to boost sales in the Midwest. In Garner’s new role of Kathryn, Dunham’s way of speaking and thinking emerges from her mouth, and it doesn’t seem to come from what you might call a place of authentic truth.

Dunham’s talents are perhaps best used when referencing her own life experiences, rather than putting herself into a future zone of mid-life crisis. For all its irritations, Girls was original, in that it was a show in which millennial women talked to and about other millennial women in New York’s heterosexual meat market. Yes, they were white, rich, self-involved and deluded, but they spoke for themselves on screen at a time when young women’s voices were – and still are – rare on television.

The terror of this kind of autobiographical method is its tendency towards narcissism. Dunham’s defenders have often pointed to the gendered nature of this critique, hedging that male creators are rarely accused of narcissism. Well, let’s start calling out male narcissism. Though it’s a truism that storytellers should write what they know, it feels to me that there’s an overlooked inverse approach: many of the finest, humblest, most humane writers are propelled by a curiosity in others.

That outward propulsion is what’s missing from Dunham’s new show, and the girlboss brand of entrepreneurialism that lies just beneath its surface. It’s not merely an intellectual disagreement that I have with Dunham. The conflation of individual career achievement with the collective progress of women, of money and wellness with empowerment, makes for very tiresome, stunted art indeed.

Shortly after the recent viral profile that assassinated her solipsism, Dunham turned outwards, writing about her literary hero, Diana Anthill, through whose work the “demands of femininity – marriage and children, specifically – were rethought and redefined”. And yet this mandate is, again, Dunham’s own, as if every aspect of hashtag feminism has been fed through a feedback loop in a Brooklyn therapist’s waiting room and recapitulated to Dunham’s career aims. Perversely, watching Camping made me recall the apocalyptic drawls of the podcast Red Scare’s Dasha Nekrasova and Anna Khachiyan, as they critique the dishonesty of so much neoliberal culture: consumerism masquerading as self-care, make-up brands masquerading as inclusive movements, workforce casualisation masquerading as flexibility. Unkind people doing unkind things to each other: now there’s an honest form of comedy for an often shallow, bereft culture.

Lauren Carroll Harris

Lauren Carroll Harris is a writer and the television critic for Radio National’s The Screen Show.

Jennifer Garner in Camping. Image: Foxtel

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