Season Review: Camp Camp Season One

Should there be more?

As I wrote the review of the season finale last week, I was enjoying a weekend in a cabin at Lake Tahoe with my parents while taking care of my sister’s kids. While I was slowly absorbing flu germs that would keep me out of school for the week, I got to enjoy the calm, quiet air of the area, as well as the relaxing atmosphere of nature around me. It reminded me of the better points in my time as a Boy Scout, despite the fact that Troops didn’t typically get a fully powered and food stocked fridge on camp outs. Point is, I think I might like to rough it again someday and just go regular camping. I joked about it in the first review, but it would be nice, at least for a weekend.

I wonder if this is what the art in Camp Camp is meant to invoke, but even if not, it’s a look that really works. And for being part of Rooster Teeth’s further exploration into 2D animated shows, visuals are what make the first impression. Unlike RVB, Strangerhood, other Machinima productions, or even stuff like X-Ray and Vav and the upcoming Sex Swing show (both of which are sustained primarily by company inside jokes), Camp Camp is a completely new IP for the company, similar to its contemporary, RWBY. Obviously its story and characters are nothing new conceptually, but it’s a show that’s not based around an already existing property, which is uncommon for this crew. Knowing that, there never really seemed to be a whole lot of expectation or hype going into it, at least for me. It simply seemed like this type of show, the 2D Nickelodeon/South Park kind of program, was simply something RT wanted to continue working with. Was it because of personal nostalgia for those shows growing up? An attempt to legitimize the company’s growing animation department by using a more familiar style? I really couldn’t say, but I’m here to look at this show’s debut season and judge it, warts and all, as simply its own individual work.

I’ve pretty clearly said my piece about the writing in each individual episode: Several opportunities for character growth wasted for the sake of the status quo. I’ve heard in podcasts that this was one of the first times they’d needed to just make a collection of self-contained plots that need everything back in place for the next one in the line, but I can’t help but think that aspect took over at some of the wrong times, like the mentioned-ad-nausea hypothetical second parts of two specific episodes. But when the weekly plots and status quo resets come out in the wash, what does it all mean? Who are the key players? What is this show really about?

After several rewatches, I’ve been able to pin down four main character focuses throughout this season: Max, Neil, Nikki, and David. Other characters, like the one-note kids at Camp Campbell, the rival camps across the lake, townspeople and the like, mainly exist to trigger the scenario and conflict that the episode focuses on, while these four are the ones who are most affected by it. Effectively, this show could be a monster-of-the-week type story, and the way the main three kids and David interact with the conflicts in these episodes would work about the same way. So, I’m going to analyze how these four have acted throughout the season to come up with some theories on what they’re like beneath their standard tropes, and maybe what they might have built on for next season.

Max starts the show with a stick firmly placed up his ten-year-old ass and being primarily in conflict with David, who he is diametrically opposed to on pretty much everything. His most desired goal from the beginning of the series is to escape the camp, which he stops talking about or trying fairly early on. But his OTHER goal is to break David down until his buoyant optimism is nothing but a puddle, because he can’t comprehend David’s attitude in the face of everything as anything but a façade that he needs to bring down. He views the camp itself as a reminder that his parents simply wanted to get rid of him for the summer, which he could be right about for all we know. Why Max is like this and how he gained such a dour outlook on the world is never really explained or even implied, but at the very least, he does seem to form a genuine bond with Neil and Nikki once they make it to the camp. He also seems to not fully think through when he wants to disprove someone else’s idea or tear down their positivity, because he gets put in his place at least a few times, including when David stands up to him in the finale, during what is probably the darkest moment for both of them. Their partial reconciling at the end might be an indicator of Max letting his guard down further in future seasons, but hopefully they can lay down some consistent foundation for what he wants out of all this, because the “leaving camp” thing could’ve been accomplished at least a few times after Ep 3, and he just doesn’t bother after that. In short, neat angle for a kid character, but a bit wishy-washy.

I’m probably going to have the least to say about Neil, since he has the least amount of focus, and pretty much shows his full potential as a character within the first quarter. He’s the science kid who thinks scientifically and talks about science and science science science science. He’s pretty good with machines, appreciates less than masculine hobbies, is a hardcore realist in the face of any type of illusion, and probably says the most curse words out of the entire cast. His focus in episodes isn’t ever particularly interesting, aside from being voiced by Yuri Lowenthal. Still, he’s apparently Jewish, so I gotta represent.

Nikki’s gotta be the most interesting out of the cast in what her focus episodes have revealed about her. She begins the show as the standard wild child that wants to fight the power and break the mold. This is compounded in the third episode, where we learn she previously attended a Girl Scout-type camp that looks like it came out of the Stepford Wives, but was kicked out for not fitting into what is expected of “girlish behavior”. Later, however, we learn that when she is faced with someone with overpowering charisma, she folds pretty quickly to their will. The first example of this was with “cool kid” Erid in Ep 4, where Nikki’s only priority was to be deemed cool by a cool person, even over helping Max and Neil. Another hint at this is in Ep 10, where Harrison, the illusionist kid, has her completely enraptured in the idea of magic, much to the chagrin of Neil and his scientific theory. Also possibly related, when Max leads her and Neil into town to follow David, simply being in civilization again makes Nikki’s clothes morph slowly from overalls to a dress, but she reverts to normal once she returns to the wilderness. Possible implication of pressures to fit in with others’ views of what she should be as opposed to what she wants? I might be reaching there, but it’s all very ripe for exploration in Season 2.

Lastly, David, who I already touched upon a bit talking about Max. Their character arcs are usually connected, but David has his own issues outside of dealing with Max. Like I’ve mentioned, he’s kind of a chipper guy, but the flaw in that is he almost seems to be entirely powered by Disney movie lessons. He’s so enthralled with the idea of Camp Campbell that he can’t come up with any practical advice or ways of helping Campers in times of crisis, and when they do need him, he really has nothing to offer beyond platitudes that don’t even apply to the situation. He seems focused more on making the kids and the camp into what he wants them to be instead of trying to work with what they actually are. He’s dead set on replacing a dead mascot at the risk of the kids’ lives in Ep 2, he tries to change camp bully Nurf’s bad attitude like it’s an after-school special, and he thinks token “working together” blurbs will instantly get the campers to do better during an inter-camp competition. I brought this up in the Finale review, but if they want to set him up as the other side of the argument from Max, they’re really not doing a great job. Max at least thinks pragmatically, even if it’s driven by petty reasons. David, in contrast, does not think things through at all if it doesn’t fit into his bubble of Halmark Channel pleasantries. He even slips so far from real life that he actually thinks bribing kids with a mystery prize will actually make them conform to being better campers in his eyes. With that in mind, his standing up to Max’s constant bullying at the end just makes him look even more short-sighted and selfish, especially considering he was trying to light a bonfire in the rain during that scene. It’d be interesting if it wasn’t so pathetic. It’s my hope that next season opens his eyes a bit to how reality works, and not to how it may or may not fit into his rose-colored view of how summer camp should be.

So, what does this show boil down to after everything I’ve talked about? Well, when I first started this show, I got some major red flags that this would just be falling back on the standard trap of “if South Park can get away with kids saying swears, then that’s all we need to think about writing”. It’s the mindset that only thinks about tearing down the naïve heart and genuine warmth of kids shows and movies, and filling it with vulgarity and adolescent cynicism…kinda like between Max and David. It happened to Drawn Together, it happened to Brickleberry, and I had every reason to think it would happen here.

Turns out, I’m not too far off. Camp Camp very rarely ends on a positive note, electing more often to simply deconstruct or poke fun at standard cartoon plots and lessons without putting anything meaningful in its place. Ep 3 and the finale were really the only notable instances where they stuck with legitimately good-intended moments to the end, while others end on asinine things like a geriatric sex dungeon, entertaining the idea of child abuse as the lesson itself, or simply shoving in peaceful resolutions that are so convenient they don’t really mean anything, ironically going full circle in what people tend to hate about how saccharin kids cartoons can be at times. Essentially, there are some clear good intentions here, but they aren’t showing up nearly enough to make much of this seem worth caring about.

But one can’t forget that Camp Camp has only completed its maiden voyage. It’s hard to say how much of a journey it has ahead of it, but this is unlikely to be the farthest these characters will go. There’s been no confirmation of a second season as of this writing, but the creators have expressed plenty of interest and ideas, so I can’t imagine they’ll stop now. Until then, bundle up for the fall, and Campe Diem.

I still can’t believe they put “dicks out for Harambe” in their ending credits, though. Jesus Christ.

SCORE
5/10

David Kaldor

Green Lynx (David Kaldor): Aimless 20-something given a paid outlet for his thoughts on cartoons. Fears being boring slightly more than being outright disliked.

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