Camp debuts tonight on NBC at 10 p.m. Eastern.
Camp exists in a strange universe not bound by the confines of time. Set at an idyllic-but-struggling family summer camp—whatever that is—the show’s look and premise feels straight out of the 1980s (or at least born of ’80s nostalgia) yet frustratingly lives in the trappings of the present, never fully committing to either concept. The result is a show unmoored, simultaneously trying on several different tones but not quite yet finding one that fits. Throw in an Australian cast playing American, a bushel full of clichés, and a few halfhearted attempts at screwball comedy, and the result is a well-meaning, intermittently amusing, awkward mess.
Ordered straight to series by NBC for a planned summer airdate, Camp stars TV veteran Rachel Griffiths (Brothers & Sisters, Six Feet Under) as Mackenzie Granger, the recently divorced owner of Little Otter Family Camp, who is trying to keep both her struggling camp and her struggling life together after her husband (Jonathan LaPaglia, the official Other LaPaglia) leaves her for a younger woman. Through some sort of crazy idea that parents and kids go to weeks-long summer camps together every year, the show follows the adult set who want to booze and sex their way through the summer to escape their kids while also focusing on the teen set who want to booze and sex their way through the summer to escape their parents. There are also counselors and other campers who don’t seem to have any parental attachments at all.
The strange notion that parents and kids want to attend a camp together—when the whole goal of camp is for parents and kids to get as far away from each other as possible for a few weeks—sets things off to a disorienting start, and the show’s reticence to over-explain the concept in the pilot takes a while to recover from. The disorientation continues with an odd disconnect between modernity and period happening within the show, which looks and feels like something out of the ’80s but is populated with a constant, modern pop soundtrack and peppered with current references to things like Game of Thrones and the Harlem Shake meme which makes the show feel almost like its floating between reality and fantasy, as if the writers were attempting to go for a timeless feel but then chickened out at the last moment.
The aimlessness isn’t helped by each character’s introduction, in which the least amount of information possible is provided, relying more on the audience’s familiarity with the very obvious tropes they represent to stand in for any kind of significant characterization. The whole world of Camp on the teen side is populated by somewhat pleasant but completely nondescript characters, representing the usual suspects: the sex-crazed teen boy; the shy, dorky newcomer; the attempting-to-reform bad girl; and the longtime couple who are starting to drift apart as they grow up. These kids spend their time secretly getting high, raiding the rival camp for supplies, and falling in love, and while it hits on a few fleetingly poignant moments it’s nothing that hasn’t been done at least 20 times before.
The trouble here isn’t necessarily in the familiarity of the narrative, though, but in its execution. Camp starts with the promise of something a little quirky or left-of-center, with the opening sequence of the pilot at least attempting to emulate the sort of screwball tone of classic camp comedies like Meatballs. The inability of the script and direction to create any sort of tonal consistency beyond this opening causes problems for what follows, resulting in something that just ends up feeling awkward. NBC provided three episodes for review, and the wacky presentation of the title card was the only thing in each episode that felt like the show was striving for (and achieving) something more than a bland multi-generational drama.
Because that’s what most of this is: bland. Griffiths is a fine actress who does her best to breathe some spunky life into what is essentially a living, breathing cliché of an unexpected divorcée, especially in her spirited love/hate relationship with the hunky owner of the rival rich camp across the lake, but beyond a few nicely realized moments with her teenage son Buzz (Charles Grounds), there’s not much for her to grasp onto, even as the center of the show. There’s even less for the teens to do, stuck in unremarkable stories played unremarkably, and many of their performances hampered by the fact that most of them are hiding their real accents, causing much of the acting to have an unfortunate flat affect. The standout is probably Thom Green as Kip, a shy newcomer to camp with a secret and an unrequited crush. Green does nice work with a fairly rote character, bringing a good deal of pathos and welcome humor to the proceedings.
Though much of this review is harsh, Camp is not a wholly awful show, just one that potentially got lost along the way. You can tell it means well and has heart under its awkward surface, and it has a pleasant low-stakes quality that’s appealing in the summer months, like relaxing into a beach chair on a sunny day. But in this modern summer landscape where high concept series like Under The Dome make a big noise, a soft, sweet, low-concept show like Camp has a mighty struggle ahead of it, especially when the drama is so low-stakes and bland it’s hard to muster up a reason to come back to see if the show manages to right itself. But if you’re looking for low-stakes, blandly awkward, and yet somehow still intermittently pleasant summer programming, Camp is about as low stakes as it gets.