For a show whose comedic rhythms are so dependent on pregnant pauses, Doll & Em has a lot to say. Unfortunately, in the tradition of discomfort humor it both draws upon and contributes to, the words don’t always come out right. Within the show’s first season (imported by HBO from the U.K.’s Sky Living), there’s potent material about female friendship, plenty of showbiz satire, and an expression of aging- and identity-related anxieties. It’s painfully funny at times, and occasionally poignant. In between those peaks, however, it’s needlingly formless.
Based on the real-life friendship between co-stars and co-creators Emily Mortimer and Dolly Wells, Doll & Em draws considerable power from the chemistry of the lifelong buddies at its center. There’s autobiography at play, but the details have been fudged for the sake of story: Wells is a working actress, same as Newsroom star Mortimer, but in Doll & Em’s world, her fictionalized alter ego is slumming across the pond when she’s tossed a lifeline by rising star Em. In Los Angeles for a film shoot, she recruits Doll to work as her personal assistant, a personal favor intended to brighten a chum’s outlook and help heal a broken heart. Wells plays the audience’s fish-out-of-water entry point into Doll & Em’s Hollywood funhouse—too bad the too-close-for-comfort relationship between the leads is weirder and funnier than anything they encounter on set.
In a city where the new and the novel are always top priority, Doll swipes the spotlight, woos a producer, and wins the hearts of the crew—all of which overshadow her best friend’s greatest professional triumph. With its shaky-cam realism, meandering episodes, and unvarnished emotions, Doll & Em is the unmistakable descendent of Curb Your Enthusiasm and Girls—with commentary on Hollywood hierarchy on loan from Entourage and Extras. But there’s a sinister, Single White Female element lying just beneath the surface, a bit of two-way envy and role reversal that doesn’t color enough of the series to make it truly distinct. In the series’ fourth and best episode—which takes these themes to their furthest extremes—Em receives notes from a disappointed director. “It’s something on your shoulder” he says, as Wells appears in frame to loom over Mortimer. It’s smart, but there could be more—though material like this is hampered by the relationship that inspired the show. Whatever toxic byproducts arise from mixing business and friendship, they didn’t prevent Mortimer and Wells from making six episodes of Doll & Em.
That commitment to showing the uglier side of friendship is further diluted by the show’s setting and its scenes from the class struggle in Hollywood. Doll & Em might be an import, but it conforms to HBO house style—a house style that’s considerably reduced the number of fresh angles for taking aim at egotistical stars, prickly behind-the-scenes talent, and the network of assistants, craftsman, and other grunts sweating to keep what remains of the studio system operating. In Mortimer, Doll & Em has a protagonist who can honestly approach the way her business feeds on youth and ignores any actress over the age of 40. An extended visual gag in episode five puts a nice (if broad) button on that thread, but it’s treated too bluntly elsewhere. It’s as if Mortimer (who co-wrote the entire first season with Wells and director Azazel Jacobs) picked up one pointer too many from her time with Aaron Sorkin. When she finally breaks down and declares she’s sick of being told she’s a “strong woman,” it’s a plea for someone to acknowledge that she’s vulnerable—but it lands like her Newsroom boss writing something he didn’t intend.
The heart of this tragicomic tale is in the difficulty of maintaining connections with the people you love—no matter your station in life or proximity to John Cusack. The visual refrain of Doll & Em is a bathtime photo of the young Wells and Mortimer, just two schoolyard pals with their whole lives ahead of them. The present-day Doll and Em find themselves recreating the image multiple times, whether it’s in a backyard hot tub or mid-morning soak that’s keeping them from a timely departure. Those moments become a welcome reminder of the natural connection at play, a manner of shooing away the contrivances of the series’ slack plotting. Like Jacobs’ occasionally stirring use of California scenery, it’s in the moments that Doll & Em cuts away from showbiz phoniness that the show says something coherent and worthwhile.