We have to begin with a discussion of how Camp, NBC's new summer comedy-drama series premiering Wednesday night at 10, begins.
We see a dock, a lake, and sailboats. We hear affable pop music. Kids walk around a woodsy locale, some in swimsuits carrying air mattresses. Others ride a paddleboat on the lake. Others are sailing, swimming, and playing tether ball in front of a teepee. Two carry an inflatable boat past one walking a bike. We slowly approach a car. "You're going to love it," says a father's voice, assuring his son he'll get outdoors and earn money. The sullen kid, wearing a gray hoodie, doesn't want his dad to "leave [him] here." There isn't even internet! Dad gruffly but lovingly says it wouldn't hurt the kid to see the sun once in a while and stop watching depressing documentaries. "This is not going to be some coming-of-age movie," the kid meta-narrates. "I'm not changing who I am."
Just then, a blue convertible pulls up with a pair of hot-looking but indifferent parents dropping off a gorgeous but quiet girl. Hoodie Boy gives up, gets out, and is hugged goodbye by his dad. Quiet girl gets the stink-eye from a pretty blonde and her friends as they saunter past. Both sets of parents drive off. Hoodie Boy, his hood now down, spots Quiet Girl. The music swells. He stares. She sees him and smiles and walks by, suddenly in slow motion. They share a brief moment. Someone walks by with a fishing pole. The music cuts — with a metallic clink rather than the expected record-scratch — as the hook catches in Hoodie Boy's nose and he screams in pain. The word "CAMP," in red letters, is stamped across a freeze-frame of his comedic agony.
I give you this play-by-play so you can understand just how closely they are hewing here to every cliché about camp movies. Later, Rachel Griffiths will be introduced as Mackenzie, the frenzied camp director, recently divorced from her scuzzy husband who left her for a bikini waxer and is threatening to force her into selling the camp. (Save the camp! Naturally. It wouldn't be a camp show without the need to save the camp.) Her awkward, horny, virgin son — who, like Hoodie Boy, is here to be a junior counselor — has only one goal for the summer. Perhaps you can guess what it is. Elsewhere, two young counselors who have had an off-again on-again relationship awkwardly reconnect, but she encounters a somewhat-older-townie attraction that seems in the early going to be straight out of Mystic Pizza.
Aside from an intriguing sideline about Awkward Son getting over his reflexive use of the words "faggy" and "retarded" — which his friends treat not with some massive conflict but with an eye-rolling "dude, you sound like a fool" attitude that's rather refreshing — there's nothing new in the pilot. There's nothing you haven't seen in Meatballs, or in the TV movies of the '80s where, for instance, Michael J. Fox and Nancy McKeon were camp counselors together. You will see entire scenes coming before they happen, and there's a good chance you could plot out a good portion of the next 12 episodes after this.
What Camp reflects, I think, is that broadcast networks in general, and NBC in particular, have had limited to no luck competing with cable when it comes to serious, thoughtful, ambitious dramas. And in fairness, it's not for lack of trying. Where they continue to have success, though, is with reality shows like The Voice — the things people use to fill the other part of their viewing schedule. Television viewing is part art and part entertainment (and often both, obviously), and so far, broadcast is struggling on the art side but alive on the entertainment side. That's why broadcast gets more ratings than Emmys.
Camp is just supposed to be pleasant and diverting, sweet and funny, something to watch with an iced tea and the fan blowing. And as diversion, it's really not bad, despite the clichés. It's just very, very simple, formulaic television of the kind you easily could have seen anytime after about 1970. In a way, if they're just going to be entertaining and not so ambitious, it's better to make something like Camp, which kicks back and embraces its old-school nature, than it is for them to look for new ways to get people to debase themselves. (I greatly prefer this to last summer's reality show Stars Earn Stripes, for instance, and to NBC's Ready For Love dating show. Yuck.)
For as lacking in ambition as Camp is — and it is severely lacking in ambition, as of the pilot anyway — it has a woozy, sleepy, summery charm. You wouldn't want every show to be like this, but it may not be a bad thing to have something like this.