“There were moments that were relatable for everything about Kathryn,” Jennifer Garner says about her character from HBO’s new comedy Camping. ”’Oh I have a sister like this,’ or ‘there’s a kid in my preschool whose mom is like this.’”
It’s true: we all know somebody like Kathryn McSorley-Jodell. She’s a little too uptight, a little too controlling, a little too obsessed with planning out every detail and sticking hard to the schedule. Overly protective of her son and contemptuous of anybody who disagrees with her, she’s the kind of woman who expects the whole world to always cater to her needs. Her need for control comes out of selfishness but also insecurity and her own history of chronic pain—pain that none of her friends seem to believe in or care about. It’s about as thankless as roles get, and Camping has absolutely no empathy for her, at least through the first four episodes that were made available to critics. Kathryn is guaranteed to be the flash point for Camping’s critics—our own Amy Amatangelo calls her an “excruciating character” in her review.
Garner has a sympathy and understanding for the character that the show doesn’t seem to share. “I think you know that someone who’s living with chronic pain and feels completely misunderstood by everyone from her normal life,” she says. “The only people who really understand her are a group of characters that I thought a lot about but that we never physically see. They’re the people that she has this blog with about, you know, living with chronic pain. But that is real to her. That’s her community and her posse and she’s a rock star to them, because she’s out there camping and doing things, even with this pain. But I think it must make you feel kind of crazy. And she probably started off being really controlling and tough to begin with.”
Kathryn is a scathing depiction of middle class white entitlement, a grown up, settled down version of the kind of women Camping’s creators Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner focused on in Girls. Garner’s public image lends that extra bite. She’s sending up her own persona by embracing the most extreme version of it in the character of Kathryn. Camping weaponizes Garner’s charm and family friendly image, in the process commenting on the kind of culture that makes women and mothers behave this way.
It wasn’t always easy to fully inhabit Kathryn’s strictness. As Garner tells it, her natural tendencies kept creeping out in her portrayal. “I was constantly trying to button a scene with a smile or something that would soften it in some way, and [Konner and Dunham] were just like ‘No! That’s you, that’s not Kathryn, don’t go for it. You have to stay strong.’”
With its focus on cringe comedy and dedication to making Kathryn about as unlikable as possible, it’s not really surprising that Camping was adapted from a British sitcom. There’s a long proud history of unlovable louts behaving terribly in British comedy, whereas in America we typically feel the need to redeem our characters in some way. The show’s contempt for Kathryn is so extreme that it’s easy to believe that Camping avoided that kind of softening, but surprisingly that’s not the case, according to Garner. “[The British version] was brilliant and I loved it but they went so much farther with Kathryn that I thought ‘I don’t know if we can do this in America.’ Actually Jenni and Lena toned her down quite a bit and softened her quite a bit and gave you reasons why, while in the British version you didn’t get those.”
Kathryn shows no sign of wilting in the four episodes we’ve seen, but Garner says that the show might eventually go easier on her. “By the end I think you’ve peeked under enough leaves that you see who’s hiding behind the tree,” she says, “and you start to understand, I think, who they used to be together, who she was to her friends, and why she is so tough to handle now.” It’s hard to see how the show could pull Kathryn out of the massive hole it digs for her, but considering how unlikable every other character on this show is, it could simply be as easy as making her the least annoying one by the end.
Camping premieres on HBO on Sunday, Oct. 14.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.