I never actually went to summer camp (I'm not sure local basketball camps count); everything I know about the camp experience, I learned from popular culture. While I'm not particularly fond of the outdoors, there's no denying the charm of camp-centric movies like Meatballs or Heavyweights or TV shows like Salute Your Shorts and Bug Juice. I say this both to let you guys know that I'm in no way a CAMP EXPERT, but also because the first episode of NBC's new scripted summer series felt like the writers watched a lot of those movies and TV shows immediately before penning the pilot script. Despite some decent performances, the episode explored very familiar territory.
Rachel Griffiths (Six Feet Under and Brothers & Sisters) is Mackenzie Greenfield, the director of Little Otter Family Camp. Recently divorced and still trying to figure out how to run the financially under-water camp and keep her life together, Mac spends her free time swarming her horny teenage son Buzz and squabbling with her ex-husband. Meanwhile, the older counselors of Little Otter spend their nights drinking and smoking and banging, and the camp's younger residents try to find love or avoid the mocking laughter of the "cool kids." There are skirmishes over room assignments, breakfast role call, weekend talent shows, and so on and so forth. It's camp.
We know that scripted shows about camp can work. ABC Family's little-watched Huge did a wonderful job of exploring the "fat camp" experience a few years back. However, while that show had the fat camp conceit as its hook, Camp didn't try too hard to reinvent the formula, especially in the pilot episode. The opening moments introduced us to a pair of People Who Don't Want to Be At Camp But Will Ultimately Enjoy It in Marina and Kip, and then ran with a silly gag involving Kip's nose ring and a fish hook. Unfortunately, that's the type of humor this first episode had to offer. Mac's son Buzz wants to get laid, so there were jokes about him buying condoms or making a fool of himself in front of the ladies. Mac's out of her element with rival camp owner Roger, and that was also supposed to be funny. Frankly, the show doesn't really work as a comedy.
The dramatic elements, though? A little better. Still familiar, but better. Griffiths probably took this role so that she could work at home in Australia, but she gives Camp a nice adult center that, especially in the pilot, helps move the show away from the teen-sex-romp elements. If there's any innovation here, it's that the adult characters aren't complete stereotypes, the sort of villainous buzzkills who tend to dominate shows like this. It's important to note that they didn't work as well in the pilot as they do in later episodes (I've seen three total), but the scenes with Mac and the other adults at the camp are surprisingly fun and simple in their approach. The various love stories between the likes of Robbie and Sarah and Kip and Marina were established well enough in the premiere, and it was easy to understand who these people are and what they want. Sure, literally none of it was new, or even especially good, but it was serviceable.
You'll notice that I keep saying things like "especially in this episode" or whatnot, and that's because the pilot was definitely the worst of the three episodes sent out to critics. As I mentioned in my preview of the show, Camp seemed much more interested in the lame, cliche comedy bits in its series premiere. Once Episodes 3 and 4 roll around (Episode 2 wasn't included in the press mailing), the show starts to focus more on the relationships between the characters and how their lives outside of camp impacts their experience at Little Otter. There are a few out-of-nowhere reveals to come post-pilot, but they add texture to characters that are pretty flimsy at the start. So if you can't make it through this one, I promise that, at least in two weeks, Camp will be better.
But even now, it's fine. I hate to give that sort of shrugging evaluation of a summer show because that's the exact kind of thing NBC is going for. There's no way this series would air at any time other than the summer, and I'm sure NBC isn't expecting it to do big business. There's only so much that can happen on a straightforward show about summer camp. And while this one may not be the absolute best version of that story, it sure as heck isn't anywhere close to a full-body case of poison ivy. So if you're like me and never went to summer camp, or if you just want to relive the halcyon days of Capture the Flag and summer love, Camp might just do the trick.
– One thing Camp has going for it is that the show looks pretty good. The Australian countryside does a nice job of filling in for what I *think* is supposed to be a location in the Midwest or on the East Coast.
– The runner in the pilot about Buzz's weird use of "faggy" and "retard?" Never heard from again. That felt pretty out-of-place for me.
What'd you think of the series premiere? Will you be back for Episode 2?