HBO’s latest sitcom is DOLL & EM, premiering soon. The story follows two women, Em, a British actress now working in Hollywood, and Doll, her best friend, who comes to the States to be Em’s assistant. They bicker, as friends do, as they struggle to adjust to their new roles as boss and employee, while trying to preserve the close friendship they’ve shared for many years.
It will be easy for some to think this is more documentary than scripted series, given that Em is played by Emily Mortimer and Doll is Dolly Wells, two real-life chums. However, as this conceit appears in more and more shows, it’s lost some of the novelty, and surely most viewers will be savvy enough to realize just how fake DOLL & EM is, even as they enjoy the mostly realistic jokes and happenstances that occur throughout.
Em and Doll are playing fictionalized version of themselves. It’s a delicate balance, letting in enough of their actual lives in order to feel authentic, and avoiding any serious rifts between them, as that would threaten the viability of the show. I would love to see a documentary or some special that goes behind the scenes of DOLL & EM or its like to reveal what dynamic exists between the stars as they work.
What plays out on screen is a dynamic portrait of two individuals. Em can be a bit self-centered, concentrating on her own work and issues at the expense of being there for Doll. But she also genuinely likes her friend and doesn’t want to seem bossy, even as she creeps into demanding territory at times. Doll, on the other hand, seems to want Em to set boundaries and guidelines, but also struggles with feelings of inadequacy, not believing herself up to the task. Em reassures her this is not the case, but viewers may disagree.
The result is a much more serious version of Entourage, one that actually explores the complexities of the relationship, more than focusing on the professions. It isn’t revealed what Em is filming in episode one; is it her HBO series The Newsroom or a movie? What’s much more important is what happens when Doll helps Em run lines. Or how Doll feels when Em forgets about her, leaving Doll in an awful position. Or the trouble Doll has learning to drive on Los Angeles roads.
DOLL & EM is charming, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call it heart-warming. That’s because you feel bad for the characters, or at least awkward, way too often to fully lose yourself in the story. It might be that the actresses are so natural that viewers will feel voyeuristic, especially when they have a particularly raw emotional moment. Or maybe it’s because the flaws, including the ones that aren’t attractive, hang out so obviously. Whatever the reason, though, there are times when I absolutely feel uncomfortable watching it.
Which is not to say you should avoid the show. The quality is definitely high, both in believability and in cleverness. The women are terrific in the parts, even if they’re only playing a version of themselves, and the pacing is exactly what it should be. Sets are not elaborate, but that is only to match the style and tone of the piece. It has its share of drawbacks, to be sure, but the positives far outweigh the negatives.
It does seem like HBO has ordered a number of short-run shows lately, and DOLL & EM is only slated to play for six weeks. This mirrors the British television model, and there’s something to be said for that. There isn’t a real clear story in the first installment, more of a focus on painting the world than a driving plot, and that could grow stale ten episodes in. By keeping it to six, it should whet viewers’ appetites without overdoing it.
DOLL & EM premieres Wednesday at 10 p.m. ET on HBO.