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New HBO Comedy Hopes to Accurately Portray Chronic Pain

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Editor's Note

The following is a review of the first episode of “Camping” and contains spoilers.

If people with chronic pain want to see themselves onscreen, their options are pretty limited. They could watch a medical procedural like “Grey’s Anatomy,” which occasionally features patients with chronic pain in a one-episode arc focused just on their medical challenges, or they could watch a show like “This Is Us” that uses chronic pain as a jumping off point to talk about opioid addiction. And… that’s about it. Despite the fact that 100 million Americans have chronic pain, it’s a subject that hardly ever shows up in movies and TV.

For that reason alone there’s something kind of great about the first episode of “Camping,” a new comedy series that premiered on HBO on Sunday. The show proudly features chronic pain as one of the defining qualities of main character Kathryn (Jennifer Garner), and chronic pain appears poised to be a central motivator of her actions and quirks as the show progresses. However, Kathryn’s other “defining” quality seems to be being type-A and controlling (and, even though this is meant to be a comedy, she’s not quite funny enough), which leaves me concerned that audiences may walk away not understanding Kathryn’s motives and feeling the sympathy for her it seems the creators intended.

The episode begins with Kathryn, her husband Walt (David Tennant) and young son Orvis (Duncan Joiner) arriving at a campground for the camping trip Kathryn has organized with a group of friends for Walt’s birthday. We learn of Kathryn’s chronic pain from the very beginning, though no specific diagnosis is revealed: She’s wearing a fleece jacket with “Int’l Women’s Pain Conference Sydney #PainfullyStrong” printed on the back, tells the campground owner she may recognize her from her Instagram account for moms and women with chronic pain, and upon arriving at their campsite, proceeds to steal all the mattress pads from the tents for herself, asking rhetorically, “Do you want me to have a dysfunctional pelvic floor the whole of your birthday weekend?”

She turns down sex with Walt because it’s “not comfortable” for her, offering her hand instead. At one point she even grabs a stack of magazines, one of which is the National Fibromyalgia and Chronic Pain Association magazine. There’s also a relatable moment when, after telling Jandice (Juliette Lewis) that she had a hysterectomy and Jandice responds with, “Have you ever tried pelvic floor work?” Kathryn responds, “I don’t think you understand what I’m dealing with here. If I did some internal release it would probably kill me.” Ahh, the old “medical advice from well-intentioned friends!” bit so many others with chronic pain have dealt with.

These details were so refreshing to me. As The Mighty’s chronic illness editor, I’ve seen many disappointing portrayals of chronic pain that don’t really give you a sense of what a real person with chronic pain might be like, or I’ve been disappointed by the lack of portrayals of chronic pain, period. So it’s pretty revolutionary to see the main character of a star-studded TV show with “has chronic pain” as a defining characteristic. It was a thrill to see such blatant acknowledgment of chronic pain onscreen.

One by one, the rest of the guests arrive for the camping trip, including Kathryn’s sister, Carleen (Ione Skye), Carleen’s husband Joe (Chris Sullivan) and Joe’s daughter Sol (Cheyenne Haynes); Walt’s friend George (Brett Gelman) and George’s wife and former-friend-of-Kathryn, Nina-Joy (Janicza Bravo); and friend Miguel (Arturo Del Puerto) and his new girlfriend, Jandice.

Past betrayals, resentments and frustrations among the group are clearly simmering below the surface, but what comes across most strongly is Kathryn’s type-A personality. She carries around a binder with all the trip’s details and constantly reminds the guests of the schedule (the episode ends with her fussing, “Swimming is tomorrow!” after everyone jumps in the lake for an impromptu dip instead of bird-watching). She objects to Carleen bringing Sol because it’s “no children allowed.” She seems over-eager to reconnect with Nina-Joy, who keeps her at arm’s length. She even interrupts people to correct their language, like when Miguel says he’s divorced instead of separated and when Walt and George refer to each other as brothers even though they’re just friends.

Critics have denounced Kathryn as “unlikeable” and even “grating” and “unwatchable.” I don’t think the issue is that Kathryn is unlikeable. Plenty of TV characters are unlikeable people you would never want to be friends with in real life. I think the issue is that Kathryn, and the show overall, just wasn’t quite funny enough. I wanted to laugh at all of Kathryn’s idiosyncrasies, but I found myself cringing more often, or feeling kind of exasperated by her. It’s just not clear yet why she’s like that; or, if the answer is “because she has chronic pain,” why we should feel sympathy for her and not write off all people with chronic pain as “type-A and controlling.” “Camping” can make Kathryn’s “unlikability” work, so long as it’s funny and you have empathy for why she’s like that. Right now the show struggles to deliver on both.

Lena Dunham, who has been vocal about her experience with chronic pain due to endometriosis and fibromyalgia, is listed as a creator, writer and producer of the show. It’s easy to see how Kathryn was inspired by Lena’s own health issues. The episode’s director, Jenni Konner, told Bustle that Kathryn’s personality is meant to be motivated by how long she has been in pain, and how she’s trying to do the best she can despite her health struggles.

Konner said:

So many sufferers of chronic pain — and as we know Lena has been very public about her own struggle — feel like there is a disbelief or things you can’t see don’t necessarily make people understand what you’re going through. There is a sense with Kathryn that no one gets it. She’s all alone with it.

After one episode, I can see where the show might be headed. Perhaps it’ll reveal that Kathryn’s type-A nature is a result of the uncertainty she’s had to face because of her chronic pain. If that’s what happens, “Camping” could be an interesting representation of how chronic pain can change you, and how it infiltrates your outlook and how you operate in the world. But, viewers need to get a sense of that sooner rather than later — and the journey to that point needs to be funnier and more entertaining.

Garner assured viewers:

If you hang in there, by the end you’ll have just peeked under enough leaves to see who is hiding behind the tree. You don’t just get it all at once, but you will, by the end, hopefully have — maybe not the love I have for her, but you’ll understand her.

I hope “Camping” delivers on that promise, and that it doesn’t lose its viewers in the process. Otherwise, we may be left with a show that simply portrays a woman who’s wound way too tight and happens to have chronic pain.

Originally published: October 17, 2018
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