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Review: NBC's 'Camp' not much to write home about yet

Despite the versatile Rachel Griffiths heading an able cast, NBC's new comedy 'Camp' rarely rises above sentiment and stereotype.

By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Television Critic

9:00 AM EDT, July 10, 2013

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Most comedy writers prefer the confines of the set, or at least the city, for reasons both fiscal and creative. A crucible cooks up laughs as quickly as it heats up drama.

But there is no reason why an hour-long coming-of-age comedy shouldn't be set in the great outdoors of a summer family camp. Lakeside locales have worked wonders in films as varied as "On Golden Pond," "Dirty Dancing," "Meatballs" and "Friday the 13th" — even "Mad Men" featured a summer camp this season.

Wrap the story around a versatile performer like Rachel Griffiths as a camp director coming to terms with an unexpected divorce, and you're golden — the trick of mirroring the maturation of adults with that of their children is pretty much the reason children are allowed to work in Hollywood. Add a bunch of attractive young counselors working through their own perfectly contoured issues and you've got a CW/ABC Family demographic cross-over. What's not to like?

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Well, if the show we're talking about is NBC's "Camp," premiering Wednesday, the answer is plenty. For starters, there is an abundance, rather over-abundance, of story lines and clichés.

As owner-director of the shabby but fun Little Otter Family Camp, Mackenzie Granger (Griffiths) provides the uber-narrative. Her husband has not just left her, he's run off with a young Russian depilation professional, leaving Mack with a ledger full of red ink and a teenage son called Buzz (Charles Grounds) whose summer goal is to (wait for it) lose his virginity.

Which is good for a lot of gratuitous sexual banter and at least one masturbation scene. (I ask again, and will keep asking until someone answers, who sent out the "don't forget the masturbation scene" memo to all the show runners?)

A bevy of B-plots ensue. A reluctant counselor in training with a secret (Kip, played by Thom Green) befriends the requisite lovely-but-misfit Marina (Lily Sullivan) as she struggles to fit in with all the pretty girls who are, of course, very mean. Two counselors' camp-only love affair is threatened by several things.

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There's a gay couple that keeps things light while their daughter offers lessons in linguistic tolerance, a salty BFF for Mack (who makes a very disturbing Christopher Hitchens joke that took me days to shake out of my head) and a young handyman with a crush on Mack.

Other issues dealt with in the three episodes NBC sent out include gambling addiction, age-inappropriate relationships and the resignation and/or resurrection of mid-life sexuality.

Oh, and there's also a whole other camp across the lake, a rich and privileged camp that apparently exists to Make Trouble for the Little Otters. Bad boy counselors descend at regular intervals to flash their jet skis and kick sand, while its owner (Rodger Corser) drives a fancy sports car and wants to buy Mack out.

All of which would be fine — if we can juggle the plot lines of "Game of Thrones," we can certainly handle "Camp" — if creators Liz Heldens ("Friday Night Lights") and Peter Elkoff ("Deception") allowed the show's tone to be anywhere near as complex. But having plucked a bunch of characters and situations that would seem more at home on the CW or ABC Family, they lose their nerve and continually choose sentiment over substance.

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Every tension is quickly diffused by epiphany; every gray area of human interaction is swiftly dragged out into the sun, pelted with water balloons and revealed to be No Big Deal.

All you need is love to solve any problem, which considering the range and level raised in "Camp," isn't just ridiculous, it's insulting. And why bother casting Griffiths, a master of seductive astringency, if you're just going to turn her into a wide-eyed, speechifying saint?

There are moments when "Camp" works — the dialogue can be snappy, the performers are all up to the task — but they are too few and only serve to hint at the show this might have been if the creators and the network had the courage to create something new and different, or at least had another listen to Allan Sherman's "Camp Granada."

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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'Camp'

Where: NBC

When: 10 p.m. Wednesday

Rating: TV-14-DLS (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language and sex)

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