The greatest sin of Camping is the fact that we are expected to pretend that David Tennant is not one of the most attractive people on the entire planet. Tennant plays Walt, the dopey, fisherman hat wearing husband of the incredibly high strung and Type A Kathryn (Jennifer Garner). The show — a limited series that marks Lena Dunham's return behind the camera after Girls — is set over Walt's birthday weekend and shows the slow dissolution of a middle-aged friend group who've all become drastically different people than who they were when they first met. While on the surface Walt and Kathryn seem to be way more in control of their lives than their friends, underneath, their sexless marriage is crumbling.
At first glance, this two year dry spell seems to be because of Kathryn's medical issues but as the series unfolds it becomes clear there are deeper emotional issues at play. Kathryn's overbearingness, Walt's inability to stand up for himself and their differences in parenting style are all signs pointing what they already know: it's not working. They might have the ideal life, but maybe it's with the wrong person. For Kathryn in particular, Walt seems to be a safe option she can mold into what fits in with the rest of her life plan. It would be compelling tension to watch unfold if it weren't for one simple fact: No one would ever look at David Tennant's face and think "Ah yes, what a safe, predictable, and pleasant man." He's like a hot, mischievous coyote.
For all intents and purposes, Walt is the exact image in the dictionary next to "accountant." Purely a cardboard cutout of a man, he comes with practical cargo shorts, unironic fisherman's hats, and so many shades of beige and blue that you'll feel your eyes slipping right past him. The human equivalent of hotel bathroom wallpaper. Walt is supposed to be unassuming to the observer, his awkwardness and overwhelming politeness perfect accessories to his incognito wardrobe.
But no matching flannel pajama set can temper the reality of David Tennant. As Russell T. Davies said best, he is an oncoming storm. As anyone who fell in love with Tennant during his Doctor Who tenure will tell you, he is an undeniable force of nature on that show, all frenetic movement that comes from running headstrong into an unwinnable situation at any cost. It's just straight-up sexy when Ten cobbles together an insane plan with nothing more than his wits and cocksure grin. But the smug little smirk that wormed its way into our hearts really can't hold a candle to the crackling intensity Ten exudes when he's defending Earth. It's something in David Tennant's eyes in those scenes, the absolute promise that he's about to f--k some bitches up.
That raw charisma pops up in every single role he plays. There's burnout David Tennant in black eyeliner and leather pants in Fright Night. There's austere, writerly David Tennant who learns to humble himself while meeting the woman of his dreams in The Decoy Bride. There's gazing dramatically into the middle distance detective David Tennant in Broadchurch. There's campy Casanova sexpot David Tennant. Even in roles where he's technically a creepy horrorshow of a villainous man whose downfall you are hoping and praying for, you can't help but notice legs for days, the perfect lushness of his hair and that goddamn twinkle in his eye.
For the creators of Camping to assume that they could dampen all that into a character who is the most pleasant shade of boring is truly wild. That's really no fault of Tennant's; after all, every actor likes to challenge themselves. But playing a character who is naturally supposed to fade to the background? Might be a step too far for even Tennant's undeniable acting chops. There's just no possible way to look at David Tennant and not be magnetically drawn to him.
The suspension of disbelief it takes to pretend Tennant's face is not noteworthy is too much for this viewer. I suspect I'm not alone.
Camping airs Sundays at 10/9c on HBO.