Doll & Em, a BBC/HBO co-production, probably won’t lead to an increase in the number of female relationships on screen. Alas, contemporary popular culture hasn’t yet found a term for platonic female relationships that’s quite as pervasive and provocative as the “bromance.” Instead of drawing consistent love, female-centered dramas like HBO’s Girls still attract both unfair censure and hyperbolic praise.
Doll & Em offers an alternative. A clever, often painful study of a corrosive friendship, it features Emily Mortimer and Dolly Wells, co-writers as well as stars. Each plays a fictionalized version of herself, and the humor is often surreptitious, derived from the gap between their professed, socially acceptable feelings for one another and the small acts of jealousy and sabotage to which no one admits, such that the balance of power in the friendship is ever unequal and constantly shifting.
The opening episode finds Dolly in London and at loose end after a break-up, while Emily’s a poised and glamorous film star who spends more time at parties and dinners than on set, despite affecting dislike for the superficial side of the job. Dolly flees to LA to work as Emily’s assistant, ostensibly a paid distraction from her gloomy home life, but is soon less an old friend helping out and being helped, and more an employee. Mortimer plays herself as insecure and insensitive, unable to resist undermining Dolly as soon as she shows signs of gaining a bit of personal or professional fulfillment.
As this plot outline suggests, Doll & Em explores the foibles of friends, even well-meaning friends. In this, it recalls Curb Your Enthusiasm, as it does also in its no-frills aesthetic, with few set pieces, little incidental music, and a ruthless, systematic stacking of faux pas, paranoia, and humiliation on Dolly. Her misery is often self-inflicted; the scene in which she sprains an ankle while pretending to have a disability to get a parking space, after being overtly patronized by Emily, recalls Larry David’s self-as-character, though not at his most grotesque. The scene also creates a tense expectation of disaster when Dolly connects with the handsome and ironically named Buddy (Jonathan Cake).
Such possibilities help to fill out the women’s emotional lives, beyond their relationship. If only focused on them. Doll & Em would quickly become repetitive, and the starry cameos self-indulgent. Thankfully, appearances by the likes of Susan Sarandon and Chloe Sevigny playing themselves are kept to a minimum, though Sevigny’s gleefully sent up as a pretentious, self-regarding hipster, and there’s a sly gag referencing Sarandon’s perceived agelessness.
Through Wells’ gift for polite, goggling bewilderment, Doll & Em resembles another comedy of Brits adrift in LA, Episodes, which also features celebrities sending up (or perhaps confirming) their public personas, along with well-aimed swipes at industry ageism and sexism, both of which regularly feed Emily’s insecurities.
The show includes as well a story arc following Emily through the filming of a big budget period piece in the third and fourth episodes. The filming not only develops a running Godfather joke, (pleasingly, as it’s a staple, tired point of reference for male sitcom characters), but also a little sympathy for Emily as she struggles with the role while Dolly becomes less dependent on her for validation. As a result, Mortimer’s character never quite tips over into lurid caricature: even at her most selfish, Emily remains familiar and vulnerable, though not above using the death of her father or some well-timed Russian poetry for leverage.
These sorts of complex characterizations seem to set up for surprises ahead, It’s not always clear what either woman gains from the friendship, and while maintaining the imbalance of power would feed the show’s bleakly comic seam, the fourth episode’s final scene suggests an impending shift when both Em and Doll audition for the same role, creating new and welcome tensions going forward.