Movies scary and sweet have been set in summer camps, but NBC’s “Camp” looks to be the first TV drama in one. The 10-episode series premieres tonight (July 10) and unfolds over a summer.
As Mackenzie, the camp’s owner, Rachel Griffiths (“Six Feet Under,” “Brothers & Sisters”) has had a rough time of it, with her husband leaving for a younger woman, the camp needing repairs, and her teenage son obsessing over sex in the singular way teenage boys can.
“She has a fantastic, the-glass-is-full view of life,” Griffiths tells Zap2it. “And she is supercapable but not always making the right decisions, and she works from the gut.”
In the pilot, counselors are filing in, the plumbing springs leaks, and a rival camp owner wants to buy her land. Mackenzie handles all far more gracefully than most.
Incidentally, this isn’t one of those camps where only kids and teens roam unwashed. It’s a family camp, where families come for vacations, and counselors keep the children occupied for chunks of the day.
Griffiths took her family to such a camp in Sequoia National Park and recalls an ideal vacation.
“We had meals with the kids,” she says, “and they were doing great stuff we had signed onto.”
The show’s Little Otter Family Camp has a lake and is nestled in the woods. It looks very much like a real camp where people climb, bike, swim and muck about in mud.
“I have never shot a movie when on location every day you are interacting in the environment in every scene,” Griffiths says. “There is the bike and in the lake, and I’m in a canoe. It is fantastic. We are in a tangible world we interact with. Everything is real. You can touch. You can do. It really works, and you can interact with as you would in real life.”
The series is intended to capture those lazy days when the pressures of mundane life are forgotten. Though Mackenzie and the other characters have their dramas, the story itself is not too heavy.
“I think it very much kind of exists within this summer bubble, if you like,” Griffiths says. “It is kind of a holiday from drama and dead bodies and psychically intense other shows we like in the fall – like ‘Homeland,’ which I love. You don’t want to care too much about life-and-death things. It reflects that summer space of leaving work a little earlier and spending time with family. It is a hanging-out show. It is definitely a dramedy, not trying to be superfunny, and marks coming of age.”
The coming of age is because the show is loaded with counselors already in college as well as counselors in training, who are high-school kids. One of those counselors in training is a moody teenager, Kip, whose father forces him to go to the camp.
“When we first see Kip, he is a bit of an introvert and a bit of a loner,” says the actor who plays him, Thom Green (“Dance Academy”). “He did not want to be at the camp. He would rather be sitting at home watching documentaries. It is the last place he wants to be. As soon as he gets out of the car he spots Marina (Lily Sullivan), one of the CITs. Over the course of the series we watch him grow, and he slowly flourishes and makes relationships.”
Little Otter Family Camp is supposed to be in the Midwest, but the show is shot in Murwillumbah, Australia.
“It was great luck,” says Griffiths from the set, which isn’t far from where she grew up in Queensland. “I never like to feel self-entitled, like I deserve anything. I feel I must have done something great in another life – NBC, 10 episodes. We (her family) are based in Australia at this moment.”
The location was picked to save money and because the show was made quickly during the North American winter, when it was summer in Australia.
“If you are in America, it will look like someplace you have been in America, and people will identify a place they recognize,” says co-creator Peter Elkoff (“Dirty Sexy Money”) while driving in the “lush, green hills” near the set.
“What attracted us to the material is to be able to tell stories about teenagers and college-age people, where there are not really parents around, and they are off their leash for the summer,” co-creator Liz Heldens (“Friday Night Lights”) says. “And of course we have the one central, essential parental figure, Rachel Griffiths. Mackenzie is a way to give kids freedom to make mistakes and fumble and all the heady stuff.”
The creators researched the setting and found no other shows that took place in camps. Ideally “Camp” will return next summer.
“It is creating the idea of a real-time summer, and taking kids and adults through a real-time summer,” Elkoff says. “You set them up with aspirations or fears and goals in the beginning, and you come to the end, and we tied up the emotional arcs we started these people on. And the idea is, if a success, we get to find out what happened over the winter.”