Lena Dunham Grows Up, Goes ‘Camping’

We haven’t had a show like 'Camping' in, well, a while.
Camping Hbo

One of the dumb questions that you might ask a director if you have the chance, is to describe the shoot. To give some sense of how the whole package, I guess, was put together. And if the shoot happened to take place outside of New York City, the director, to answer your asinine question, might liken the experience to camping, an experience kids raised indoors dream of and anyone else, quite rightly, demands to be paid good money to enjoy. The idea of adults camping is rather ludicrous, which means it surely must happen all the time and is as good a place as any to discover something real and revealing about the miserabilia of middle age. It’s both a strange and a fitting project for Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner, which marks their first television project since Girls–and potentially their last together.

Because Dunham herself is not quite middle-aged (“I actually feel not even middle-aged but elderly in my disposition,” she tells Rolling Stone), the show is led by the face of Jennifer Garner, who has been a walking signifier of middle-aged adulthood since 13 Going on 30. At her side is David Tennent, the former Doctor trying hard to pass his English accent as a kind of gawky Americanism. He manages to hit New England but the significance of his lanky, gawky body cannot be avoided. Dunham hasn’t waited around for her and her Girls co-star-turned movie star Adam Driver to age a decade and has, instead, cast what any we might imagine what she might image what their middle 40s would look like.

Being played by Jennifer Garner provides Kathryn Siddell-Bauers little comfort, however. She is patched, instead, by a devout belief in the capacities of vitamins and the American health care system’s ability to care for its semi-affluent. She enters hospitals with the conviction that she will leave them the cured. Her walk is that of a pregnant two-step waddle as if physically carrying the burden of aging. We learn that she is. She commands an online audience cresting eleven thousand Instagram followers who are “mostly women living with chronic pain.” She says things like “Christ on a cracker.” She has taken the liberty of renting out a number of tents under the guise of celebrating the forty-fifth birthday of her husband, whose name Walt (Tennent) winks at the malice of the middle-aged man that once dominated prestige television. Walt is passionate, however, about fishing and maybe, someday, having sex with his wife again. Tennent manages to make the sad horniness of middle-age both moving and pathetic, like watching a passive-aggressive Ned Flanders in the bedroom. A small parade of discontented adults, along with two children, follow to join this dark celebration of the passage of time.

Like Itchy & Scratchy, they fight. The most obvious rivalry emerges quickly between Kathryn and Jandice (Juliette Lewis), who speaks with the authority of a wise pack of cigarettes and believes it’s really the doctors who kill you. She is a version of a character that Dunham has been developing for some time and is often played by Jemima Kirke. I think here perfectly articulates the anxiety between someone at war with their body and someone born with the confidence that it will carry them. Others fight as well, most notability during a very tense fishing trip in an episode penned by John Riggi. The most moving of these characters is Nina-Joy (Janicza Bravo) who moonlights as the camping trip’s voice of reason and who suffers quietly as the lone woman of color among the dregs of Gen X.

The premise and, to a lesser extent, the characters bear some resemblance to a little-watched Julia Davis TV series of the same name—which ran in the UK for a single season and which is being adapted by Dunham and Konner—and is also something of a riff on Mike Leigh’s Nuts in May. This is an interesting choice and is both self-consciously conservative and erratically random, the gesture of an artist who has taken great sacrifices to blur the distinctions between the coherent story of her public life and that she has played inside her work. Fans of Girls will quickly recognize the breezy trees and sudden influx of granola hippie characters as indicative of that show’s love of the quaint, short-story-length bottle episode, which so often took the form of detours to New York’s real or imagined countryside and disappointing affairs with a surfing instructor or Patrick Wilson. At the end of these bottle episodes were quiet and poetic revelations, often the realization that life is lonelier than first thought and a fundamental discontentment with what people can provide.

And what a time it is to encounter Dunham’s inimitable style of disappointing people. Assertive pessimists and doomed dreamers, who approach the project of becoming a better person like a gambler on a last roll of dice. These are the people she knows and we can feel that, down to references to Nan Goldin and Liz Phair, inserted graciously for the magazine editors of the world to enjoy.

A certain kind of television show has been bloated with these kinds of people that TV writers would like us to think they know: every new block that I find marketed to my demo hums with the incessant noise of particularity. While this has saved the decade from anything so embarrassing as discovering the cast of Friends were once excited to see Hootie and the Blowfish, it has also led to bizarrely surreal moments, like discovering a first-grader with the music taste of seasoned hipsters.

The milieu of Girls had brought an influx of auto-fictional TV comedies (Louie, Maron, Broad City, Master of None, Inside Amy Schumer). As the years passed, most of them died their own ignoble, middling deaths and their gritty realism was replaced by a kind of hysterical realism, a wave not unlike the decade of novelists who replaced the MFA short fiction realists in the literary world in the late ‘90s. Prestige comedies that straddled this gap exemplified it: the second season of Atlanta— its first was part of Elizabeth Nussbaum’s “wave of hyper-personal half hours,”—delivered instead surreal analogies to the “psychological and physical struggles” of Michael Jackson; I vaguely recall High Maintenance trying to do a special episode about terrorism in its latest incarnation this year.

Like Girls, these shows are marketed to me so I try to enjoy them. I turn on one of these—Bojack Horseman, The Good Place, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, it hardly matters. A wacky premise, likeable people—and under it I find Dunham’s same quivering, autobiographical note, the eternal agony of a TV writer: I have everything I want and I’m so, so sad! In Dunham’s worlds, these people are collectively denigrated with unbearable pettiness, a tradition that Camping unapologetically continues. Kathryn ignores the needs of those closest to her and deeply loathes, on a fundamentally level, the loved ones around her. TV has not felt quite this mean since she and Konner left it and how you feel about this might not be similar to how you felt about the latter-day moments of Girls, why would I want to spend my time around such people if I could be around people who feel the same way (sad at being so privileged etc.).

But a show like Camping makes the argument that this unbearability is what tethers its characters to the real world, something hysterically real TV avoids with its endlessly changing setpieces, the end-of-season revelations that keep us demanding more. Life is hard and it only gets harder and it only makes us meaner, Camping argues. Nothing saves us, not even being hip or voting the right way or our college educations. Its emotional bleakness is a fitting antidote to the ruthless, shallow optimism of our collectively vampiric obsession with getting correct the youngest generation possible. I find it kind of moving that Dunham has already moved on. You can always be the voice of another generation.

Camping premieres on HBO on Sunday, October 14th at 10 pm EST.

Andrew Karpan: movies are not magic but skin and bone.