Mar 20, 2014

Doll & Em: “Episode 1” & “Episode 2”

By Josh Oakley

Doll & Em is about as loose and easy going as television gets. Yes, there’s a bit of martial strife brewing at the close of the second episode, but in this first week at least, conflict is mostly found in rolled eyes and endless pauses. This is the kind of thing that’s all too rare in a culture where quality often equals grim violence or misanthropy. And there are a number of moments that work beautifully, reflecting the show’s dichotomy of true friendship and Hollywood facades. But too often, the low-key tone is pitched aggressively against exaggerated satire, and both halves of the show fall apart.

Emily Mortimer and Dolly Wells play variations on themselves, in this mini-series that they co-created and co-wrote, along with director Azazel Jacobs (For the sake of coherency, first names will correspond to the characters and last names to the actors from here on out). Dolly begins the show by going through a rough break-up, in a montage that becomes the opening titles for the series. She quickly relocates from the UK to LA, to become Emily’s assistant. They’ve been friends since they were children, but the balance tilts, too much it seems, when money and power enter into their relationship.

The history of Emily and Dolly as friends is established neatly through the opening title, but it often seems a bit undercooked. There are scenes when their history becomes apparent, though not enough, especially given what Doll & Em is attempting to do. This may be because the series is so short (only six episodes; two per week for three weeks) or because it wishes to move on to events that it finds more interesting. That foundation is vital though, as the cracking of a friendship doesn’t mean much in a vacuum. Perhaps the biggest issue here is that Emily and Dolly seem like sketches to a certain extent. It’s difficult, for example, to know to what degree Emily genuinely buys into the banal insanity of Hollywood, and how much is her wisely playing along. Without well-drawn characters, the central relationship doesn’t stand much of a chance, except in those scenes where a painful authenticity peeks through.

That authenticity is almost completely lacking from the time spent tearing the film world down, which much of the second episode revolves around. The jokes here are nothing new, from the pretentious screenwriter who balks at a comparison to Francis Ford Coppola, to people like Susan Sarandon playing heightened versions of themselves. Obviously Mortimer knows plenty about the inner-workings of the system, which is why these jabs are so disappointing. There’s a true chance for a new perspective, and besides a handful of intriguing mentions of the difficulties of being an aging woman, everything here feels warmed over.

Doll & Em is far from a disaster. Mortimer and Wells have a natural chemistry that fills in some of the gaps left by the writing. Wells is especially good here, namely in a scene late in episode two. She sells incredulous better than just about anyone out there. Mortimer’s best moment, in episode one, is also the best scene of the show so far. After Emily arrives home drunk from a party, she keeps comparing her posh night to Dolly’s day of being locked out of the house for twelve hours. Mortimer plays drunk beautifully here, and the scene goes from harsh to warm with just the right touch. Episode two also has a brilliant exchange between the women, one that is both hilarious and poignant (“Aren’t we too old for this kind of thing?” “Nearly, we’ve got about five minutes left.”).

The problem then, is that between the occasional sublime line or scene there exists a lot of waiting. I adore laid-back television, but there are stretches in these two episodes that push the limit of lowered stakes. Compare this to Looking, the other new HBO series in 2014 where absolutely nothing happens; that show created a sense of urgency out of whether someone was a top or a bottom, which was founded upon character and dialogue. Neither of those are dreadful here, but without plotting or drama or enough comedy to lean on, the lapses in engaging scenes is more pronounced.

The show certainly seems as if it is worth following through to the end. There seems to be something here about how old friendships can eventually become as polished and removed as Hollywood veneers. And there are even more hints of greatness than I mentioned above, little touches that prove that everyone here knows what they’re doing. Unfortunately, for much of these opening episodes, they don’t seem to be doing anything great. The talent is clearly there, both in front of and behind the camera. The key for the remaining episodes will be to take the promise of these early entries and deliver a story that says something, or at least knows who it’s saying something about.

“Episode 1”: C+
“Episode 2”: C+

  • A couple of those other great things: the cut that interrupts Buddy (Jonathan Cake) before he can finish repeating his pick-up line is a nice, vibrant touch.
  • There are a number of good bit players as well, especially Pamela Dunlap, who is much less terrifying here than as Grandma Francis on Mad Men.
Image via Showbiz411

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