Who is Camp about?
This may seem like an overly existential question about a show that NBC made on the cheap in Australia and is unlikely to renew, but it’s a question that matters to me as someone who has seen every episode of the series. What Camp is about has never been a question: once you learn what a family camp is, the show settles into comfortable clichés of summers spent exploring your identity. The show began with Kip being dropped off by his father, and the season ends with Kip being picked up to head home, and his story embodies Camp’s belief that summers at Little Otter are where you find out who you really are.
That being said, whose stories at Little Otter has Camp been interested in telling? The show has created three distinct groups of characters, each with their own perspective: The CITs (Counselors in Training) are the teenaged characters still flirting with first sexual experiences and unrequited crushes, the Counselors are twenty-something adults with uncertain futures trying to figure out who they are in a post-Little Otter world, and the adults are caught up in taking care of their kids while simultaneously finding time for themselves.
Camp’s biggest problem is that it never decided whose story it was telling. From the beginning, the series existed not because it was a particularly compelling take on the camp show but rather because the creators had convinced NBC that it would be a camp show that ticked off the demographic and budgetary boxes necessary. While the CITs position the series to young teen audiences out of school for the summer, the older counselors give them access to more mature and complicated relationship storylines; the adults, meanwhile, offer an avenue for older viewers to relate to the story of Rachel Griffiths’ newly-divorced MacKenzie and her choice between the bitter rival she despises and the young counselor she never saw romantically. It’s almost as though there’s three shows built into one, which is great for NBC when imagining demographic appeals and a terrible, awful, no-good way to make a productive television show.
Throughout the first season, Camp’s biggest problem was plot. For example: In “Last Days Of Summer,” Kip and Marina are lamenting the pending conclusion of their time in Little Otter and planning out how they’ll see each other. It’s a natural dilemma of camp relationships, but Camp isn’t interested in natural. Before you know it, we learn Marina’s mother is in jail, Marina’s aunt from Winnipeg is here to take custody of her, and it turns out Marina’s aunt from Winnipeg is an abusive, judgmental, and all-around awful human being. Suddenly, it’s no longer a story about Kip and Marina facing an uncertain future; instead, it’s Marina being shipped off to another country to be imprisoned and slut-shamed in her own home by a woman she hardly knows.
Kip has been the series’ most consistent character, wry enough to deal with the show’s lightness while also weighty enough to tap into the often-misguided pathos more effectively than other characters. Thom Green is the best actor out of the younger cast members, and he has legitimate chemistry with Lily Sullivan (who plays Marina), but he’s not allowed to actually act in this episode. A moonlight snuggle session is told entirely through montage, flitting back and forth between meaningful bits of verbiage without giving us a sustained glimpse of their dynamic. It’s all lost in crazy aunts, just as Marina’s pregnancy scare was lost in the addition of an armed robbery—seriously—onto an already overcomplicated plot.
In other instances, Camp suffered because there was simply too much plot. “Last Days of Summer” was organized around a hastily introduced “Camp Olympics” where Little Otter competed with Ridgefield, and you could see the writers rubbing their hands together thinking about how useful it would be to bring various ongoing storylines to a head. However, the frame didn’t leave much room for actual conversation or interaction, and reduced storylines—like Buzz regaining his confidence after being assaulted by the Ridgefield counselor—to confrontation or conflict as opposed to something more substantial. The series’ commitment to running big theme episodes is a case of TV Writing 101, and while structure can often be useful, it can also make it feel like characters are taking part in plots instead of acting like human beings.
You are likely reaching the point in this review where you’re wondering why I care so much about something I’m giving a low grade, but this is legitimately a show I want to see succeed. It built some interesting characters among its young CITs, and there is a show here about that complicated stage of life when you’re being asked to take responsibility for yourself and others while still being a “kid.” As much as Buzz’s storyline was oversimplified with the “Eliminator” showdown with his bully, and as much as his relationship with Grace was choreographed the second he said insensitive things to her in the series premiere and felt bad about it, I legitimately like the character. Similarly, as much as Kip and Marina’s relationship hit every cliché imaginable, his early relationship with Chloe and the integration of his cancer into both relationships has been distinctive and interesting. When the CITs went on an overnight trip in “CIT Overnight”—not the most creative episode titles, Camp—the storyline was interesting, complicated, and didn’t feel like it relied on contrived plot to drive the story forward. I would gladly watch a show focused on this group’s second summer together. I believe that show could be a great summer camp show.
The problem is it’s only one third of the show as it stands, and it’s the only third of the show that works. The only way Camp improves in a theoretical—and unlikely—second season is if the writers treat this whole first season as an experiment. The writers need to realize the older counselors feel lost in between the younger counselors and the adults with nowhere to go, and that the adults need to be treated as supporting characters and not as their own wing of the narrative. The show needs to find ways to maintain the separation of kids and adults that makes summer camp so freeing, while using the presence of the adults to enrich storylines rather than fracture them.
Camp wants to be Friday Night Lights’ third season (stay with me here). It wants to tell the stories of a group of young kids finding themselves (the team), the young adults with uncertain futures (Street and Smash), and the adults who are responsible for it all (Coach and Mrs. Coach). The problem is that Camp is in its first season, and made by people who understand what a television show should look like without really knowing how to execute it properly. It’s also a show that uses its clichés as glue to hold together disparate storylines, ADR’d seemingly 50 percent of its dialogue, and at a certain point stopped trying to find bit players who were capable of hiding Australian accents. For every storyline that worked in an episode there were two that didn’t, and that’s a ratio that’s more likely to inspire hatewatching than confidence in the series going forward.
And yet I want—nay, need—Camp to succeed. A friend of mine hates Camp not simply because it’s bad, but because it’s combination of broadcast exposure and low ratings have ruined camp shows for the foreseeable future (in that no other network will make one even if the script is considerably more interesting or innovative). It is tragic that no one else can develop a camp show because NBC rushed Liz Heldens’ script into production without a pilot as a cheap summer series filmed in Australia that had no real handle on its characters or its structure. And yet for every part of the show that fell apart, I still remain enamored with the camp setting. With every beautiful shot of the clearly Australian but nonetheless attractive Little Otter setting, and with every storyline that taps into the energy of the summer camp environment, you root for Camp in spite of all of the things that just don’t work. You see the good in a show that is often decidedly bad, because you want to believe that it could become that show and not the mess of a show it is.
There are clear issues with Camp’s ending, chief among them the speed at which MacKenzie makes herself Marina’s foster mother. However, to the show’s credit, it steers away from many predictable conclusions. Kip and Marina spend the night under the stars but don’t have sex; Buzz and Grace become boyfriend and girlfriend, but without the sexual awakening Buzz so desired; Sarah and Robbie veer toward reconciling but end up remaining in their post-breakup stasis; Cole appears to be Mack’s choice, but he decides to take the job in Alaska and leaves the love triangle unresolved. Although none of these storylines are groundbreaking, they as a whole—for once—make an interesting observation about the end of summer. Although it may separate couples or force major life decisions, there is no guarantee that every summer story will reach the perfect climax; the end of summer is as much an interruption as a conclusion, and by acknowledging this Camp shows a glimmer of potential that will likely never be realized but must be acknowledged for sake of the future of camp shows on television.
Episode Grade: C
Season Grade: C+
- Todd, Raffi and Sheila were characters I liked a lot that I sort of wish didn’t exist—the parents wing was too thin to sustain storylines, but I liked what Adam Gracia, Christopher Kirby, and Genevieve Hegney did with the characters. Raffi’s drunken pep talk to Cole—“Do you want me to smash this chair?”—on how he should be seducing Mack was particularly fun.
- I would love to know what percentage of dialogue has been redone in ADR over the course of the season, and the most common reasons for it. Was it based on accent concerns? Was it based on trouble recording sound on location? I’ve never seen a show with this much ADR.
- So is Camp officially set in Michigan, based on the presumption Mackenzie and Buzz live in the same state as the camp? Because the show spent all season being really vague about it, perhaps because the writers realized there’s no state called Australia.
- While marred by some unrelated material, “CIT Training” was still the season’s strongest hour. I would be interested to see what the writers had planned for the three additional episodes ordered but ultimately not produced due to scheduling issues, and whether it might have helped the transition into the overstuffed finale.