HBO has done very well in the past with comedy series that explore and expose the inner workings of show business, from Garry Shandling in The Larry Sanders Show to Ricky Gervais in Extras. Wednesday night, the network presents its newest entry in that self-obsessed Hollywood genre: Doll & Em, a British comedy series that's a vanity production in the most literal sense of the word.
It stars Emily Mortimer, the lead actress from HBO's The Newsroom, as an exaggerated version of herself. Her co-star is another British actress, Dolly Wells, who has been one of Emily's best friends since early childhood.
In Doll & Em, Dolly plays ... Dolly, one of Emily's best friends since early childhood. After an emotional romantic breakup, she calls Emily in tears, and Emily impulsively pays her way from London to Los Angeles so Dolly can serve as Emily's personal assistant on a movie she's filming.
From the moment Dolly sets foot in the States, Doll & Em is all about vanity — and ego, and insecurities, and the unwritten but fairly rigid Hollywood class system. Late at night, only hours before Dolly begins her new job, the two old friends are lounging around drinking wine, and Dolly asks her best friend what her duties will entail. That's when the power shift slowly, but very surely, begins.
Mortimer, in this series, is playing a playfully unflattering version of herself; it's sort of like what Larry David does in Curb Your Enthusiasm. Dolly Wells, though she indeed is close friends with her co-star, is playing more of a role.
In real life, Dolly Wells is an actress herself, though better known on British TV than here; I first noticed her in the satirical anthology series Star Stories, in which she playfully impersonated such celebrities as Nicole Kidman, Gwyneth Paltrow and Heather Mills. But in Doll & Em, she plays a showbiz novice, a "normal" person quickly swept up by the trappings of Hollywood.
As an assistant, Dolly is terrible: She's afraid to drive on American streets, she reveals way too many confidences, and she fuels rather than alleviates Emily's insecurities. But on the set, Dolly is loved by everyone — and in a silent on-camera role as an extra, she shines so brightly that she becomes not only Emily's assistant but her potential rival.
The real Mortimer and Wells created this TV series, are two of its three co-writers, and have left room for small stretches of improvisation. On screen they're wonderful together, and there's no problem believing them completely, whether they're fighting or laughing.
What weighs down this sitcom, especially at first, is its lack of subtlety. Plot points, like recurring jokes, are hammered home too hard and much too obviously. Even the closing theme song, "Why Can't We Be Friends?," telegraphs that things will get worse before they get better.
Despite all that, though, if you stick with Doll & Em, eventually it will stick with you, too. And as the central dynamic shifts and the friendship unravels, you'll care about both of them, and about what happens next.
HBO is running two fresh episodes back-to-back each Wednesday. The fact that Doll & Em is shown Wednesdays, rather than on the network's long-established showcase Sunday night, implies something about HBO's own opinion of this import. But it's worth seeing, not only for its story about female friendship but also because it allows other celebrities, including Susan Sarandon and John Cusack, to play slightly skewed versions of themselves.
As a satire of Hollywood, Doll & Em isn't as sharp as The Larry Sanders Show, as smart as Extras, or as cocky as Entourage — all of which were HBO comedies. Certainly, it isn't as biting as Fox's cult favorite Hollywood satire, Action, or as delightful as Showtime's Episodes. But even though it's easy to predict at every turn where Doll & Em is going, it still ends up being a pleasant-enough trip. And it leaves room, the way things conclude, for a return voyage.
David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching, and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey.