Doll & Em (TV Review)

The script for Doll & Em was fittingly created by an act of friendship. In order for them to stay in touch – and justify the obscene amount of money they were spending on trans-Atlantic phone calls to each other – Dolly Wells and Emily Mortimer decided that they would start writing scripts together. This allowed them to not only keep up the intense level of discourse they were used to engaging in, but to feel they were getting something done.

That thing turned out to be Doll & Em – a six part sitcom picked up by HBO – focussing on the relationship between the titular self-titled characters. Em is a successful actress continually hounded by the pressures of females finding work in the mainstream Hollywood machine. She dreads every role might be her last and wonders just how long she has left on the superficial film industry shelf. Doll is her best friend from childhood who kicks her husband out after his insecure behaviour starts destroying their relationship.

Em flies Doll out to L.A. so they can be closer to each other, and in order for Doll to get some cash of her own she takes up Em’s offer to become her new personal assistant. The series uses this relationship to satirise the way the entertainment industry dehumanises and degrades the people it constantly claims it’s representing. The result is a very clever comedy of manners. The situations it creates are grounded enough to have a sense of reality but the wit keeps them from ever being dull. There’s also a subtlety to the writing that stops it from ever being sanctimonious and a humility that prevents it from ever being smug.

Emily Mortimer is already part of an award winning show on HBO but here she proves more capable of writing a great female character than even Aaron Sorkin. In fact, even though her character in The Newsroom isn’t as flawed as her character here, she isn’t as insufferable either. Dolly Wells manages to create a character who is both highly sympathetic but never pitiful.

Together Doll and Em are deeply human characters who never fall into the lazy or vulgar end of caricature. They are both highly insecure, contain easily recognisable flaws and react to bad situations in an all too human way, i.e. defensively and selfishly. It’s a brave decision to have their on screen personas so closely mimic their real life counterparts as it makes the series seem far more autobiographical than could ever be conceivably true.

But that real life parallel is also the reason their friendship is never questioned, no matter how deeply in jeopardy it may ever seem. Their interplay is fantastic, the way they naturally bounce off of one another and seem so comfortable in each other’s company. The investment in the relationship is deep, no matter how much your opinion of a character might suffer during the course of a series you can never really stand to see them separate.

It has a quaintness to it. There’s a ostensible Britishness to the series, a common sense that prevails through all the glamour of the Hollywood lifestyle. The show makes its stance on Americanised frivolity abundantly clear, the program is never more disappointed in its stars than when they start to fall for the flattery, when they start believing their own hype. Its this attitude that stops the series from ever from falling into the pit most Hollywood satires fall into, the realms of self-satisfied complacency.

From the first scene the program lets us know exactly what we’re in for. Em tells Doll she’s going to get a tub of ice cream from the kitchen, but is to lazy to get up. Doll then gets the ice cream. That’s it. But the writing is so good that we – as viewers – get so much from the exchange. Doll’s eagerness to please and the impending sense she is being taked advantage of. Em using the guise of her friendship to get away with turning her friend into her servant.  The series fills itself with these moments of hidden agenda and social etiquette. There’s a point where the two women start talking about their dead fathers and after a few sentences you realise their competing for who has the most tragic backstory.

Doll & Em is a clever, sharp and most importantly hilarious look at Hollywood through the eyes of two highly intelligent British women. They’ve made a comedy but more importantly they’ve told a story. One populated by terrific characters, realistic situations and the kind of insight that can bring out the best in both.