Annoying characters can be quite amusing, as evidenced by Ricky Gervais and Steve Carell as the bosses on the British and American “The Office,” respectively. They and their exasperating traits are the backbone of cringe comedy. Even Lena Dunham’s Hannah on “Girls” could be funny while she was making her stupid decisions and spiraling into narcissism.
Sadly, given the amount of talent in front of and behind the camera, including Dunham and Jenni Konner of “Girls” as writer-producers, “Camping” delivers an annoying character who is anything but amusing. She made me cringe, yes, but only because I couldn’t wait to get away from her to go do my laundry and wash the dishes. Give me Debbie Downer any day over the HBO show’s insanely controlling, petty, and pouty Kathryn, played by the poorly cast Jennifer Garner. She’s the kind of Instagram-obsessed, self-centered helicopter mom you’d want to cut off in the after-school pickup-dropoff line of cars. There’s nothing entertaining about her.
The setup for the eight-episode comedy, which is based on a British series and premieres Sunday at 10 p.m., is that Kathryn has planned a camping trip for friends and family to celebrate her husband Walt’s 45th birthday. It’s the correct thing to do. Played by David Tennant as a brow-beaten cliché, Walt is hoping to have tent sex during the vacation, after two years without. But Kathryn claims she can’t due to pain in her pelvic floor, which she is fixated on, while we — and possibly Walt — suspect it is all due to an emotional problem. She is profoundly negative, and she is stuck in place, unable or unwilling to change. Perhaps by the end of the season — HBO made four episodes available for review — Kathryn will somehow wake up, but halfway in, it’s hard to imagine that kind of epiphany ever occurring.
The guests form a loose group riddled with dissent, although somewhat unified in their dislike of Kathryn. It’s like “The Big Chill” gone sour. Kathryn’s sister, Carleen (Ione Skye), is there with her partner, played by Chris Sullivan of “This Is Us” as a kind of nasty Toby who has an ugly drinking problem. Walt’s college buddy George (Brett Gelman) is on hand, and cheerful, even while his partner, Nina-Joy (Janicza Bravo), is struggling with an old grudge against Kathryn. And, most importantly, Walt’s newly separated pal, Miguel (Arturo Del Puerto), has joined the party with his new girlfriend, the freewheeling hippie Jandice, played wonderfully by Juliette Lewis. Jandice and her kooky New Age thinking change everything.
Jandice is exactly the opposite of Kathryn — she’s spontaneous, unedited, unconcerned about what others think. She refuses to be directed by Kathryn, unlike the others, and she stirs up a lot of defiance. The polarity between the two women sets up a predictable tension that recurs in the first episodes, as they struggle to pull the trip in different directions. Kathryn has planned every single moment, and she is outraged when Jandice gets the gang into the lake for an improptu swim. “Let me remind you that none of you is wearing sunscreen,” Kathryn yells. But Jandice has already removed her clothes and jumped in the water. If I were her, I’d swim away from this bad trip as hard and as fast as I could.
Starring: Jennifer Garner, Juliette Lewis, David Tennant, Brett Gelman, Ione Skye, Chris Sullivan, Bridget Everett, Janicza Bravo, Arturo Del Puerto.
On: HBO, Sunday at 10 p.m.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.