More or less the only thing that differentiates USA’s new reality show Summer Camp from a hundred other Survivor clones is its setting—a recreated camp of the variety Wet Hot American Summer lovingly skewers. Superficially, Summer Camp’s vision of the camp experience is premised in that all-American ideal of perfect, starlit summers full of passionate, adolescent romance. There are no bathrooms in the bunks! The campgrounds have totem poles and signs that look kind of like they were hand painted! There are separate camps for boys and girls! The soundtrack keeps threatening to break out into “Summer Nights” from Grease! But like that other oft-idealized hotbed of adolescence, high school, camp is only cool if you, too, are or were cool. (It is probably not hard to imagine what my summer camp experience was like, but let’s just say it was mixed at best.) Summer Camp’s strongest asset, then, is the way it continually threatens to subvert the summer camp cliché. Most of the campers seem like people who were picked on early in life for being unattractive or nerdy or whatever else coming back to have the ideal camp experience they feel entitled to in a way that could theoretically make their struggle to “relive” camp and have the adolescence they wanted fascinating, if the show wasn’t so boring.
Sadly, Summer Camp is for the most part a straightforward, uninteresting take on reality competition (and, again, a more direct than usual Survivor clone). The boys’ and girls’ teams will compete for eight episodes over a cash prize, voting each other out of camp after camp-theme challenges. Sound superficially familiar? Tonight’s premiere is in a worse position, since it has to get through introducing all of the campers and the unnecessarily complicated voting system (the losing team’s “camp counselor” banishes two campers to the winning team, who then eliminates one), as well as something called a “social” where people jump in a pool. That doesn’t leave time for more than a single competition and drawn-out elimination in this episode. Worse still, the sense of safety conveyed by the summer camp setting makes the “competition” even more obviously artificial than in any of the shows it’s aping. Obviously bored host Matt Rogers (of old American Idol fame) doesn’t help with this problem, randomly appearing and disappearing to tell the campers that more contrived, boring stuff is happening—his announcement of the “twist” in the color war game challenge is one of the saddest, half-hearted pronouncements on TV this year.
The cast members themselves are really the biggest problem with the show so far. They’re all introduced with beyond stock descriptions like “Smart-Ass” or “The Model” or “The Flirt” or “The Cowboy,” and they all repeat those labels several times during their brief introductions. (“The Geek” Melinda even wears the word “geek” on her T-shirt in case you forgot that she is, in fact, a geek.) Trying to service 16 people in the premiere, Summer Camp doesn’t give any of them the opportunity to make any impression at all, let alone one strong enough to sustain interest for eight episodes. Occasionally, reality personalities come across as archetypes with room to grow, but that doesn’t seem to be the case for most of the campers, who try to say exciting, dramatic things like “Women are the most dangerous game of all,” that don’t land. Worst of all, the campers are all forced to keep repeating things about themselves and about the rules of the show to the point where none of them actually get to do anything. Half the voting for “camp counselor” consists of repeating what the camp counselor actually does.
The show’s combination of soapy, dramatic reality show about revisiting the summer camp experience and competition in camp-related games is painfully awkward. You’d think that the forced conflict surrounding the competitive aspect (like in elections for the immune position of camp counselor) would magnify and accentuate the interpersonal drama, but the lack of anything resembling an engaging character nips that in the bud. That’s too bad, because both halves of the show would be decent enough solo. Hopefully, the rest of the season will be a bit more watchable than the premiere. Some of the more potent sources of conflict (like the “Broadway performer” bunking with the openly homophobic “hunter”) will have time to bear fruit further down the line with deeper resentment between the campers. There’s the suggestion of some future intrigue within the game when Lauren immediately tries to turn on the girls as a double agent during the elimination session, and in a perfect world, some of the campers will make the “former ugly duckling” material worthwhile (cosplaying Melinda and too-fit former fat boy Moises are the best candidates for this).
Summer Camp’s refusal to divert even a little bit from its historical template is in many ways infuriating. I might be reading too much into this based on my own summer camp experience, but the hints of actual, relevant issues surrounding the myth of camp and the campers’ troubled adolescences should be fascinating. The reality format could be an engaging way to explore a few people’s complicated relationships with this particular idea, but that actually happening seems about as realistic as the perfect summer the campers are chasing.