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Will HBO’s Quiet Gem ‘Doll & Em’ Find the Audience It Deserves?

It’s a common dream to work with your best friend. If you have plenty of fun hanging out together, why not hang out more? Work can be rough, and having your best friend next to you to joke around can make the day go faster. It’s a fun dream, but it’s not always a fun reality. The reality is that too much of one person can become incredibly irritating. You are too close to each other too often and you can’t catch a break. Sometimes you become competitive or resentful. That’s the surface gist of Doll & Em, a quiet and quick, but generally pleasant show.

Doll & Em, created by Dolly Wells and Emily Mortimer (who also share all of the writing credits, along with director Azazel Jacobs), is a British comedy picked up by HBO. When Dolly goes through a rough breakup, Emily invites her to spend some time in Los Angeles and become her assistant. It’s a quick fix at first, but neither knows what this new boss-employee relationship entails. Emily sort of knows what she wants but is uncomfortable articulating it: No, you don’t have to get me coffee every morning, but by the way, here is exactly how I want my coffee every morning.

Doll & Em has quiet moments, such as the very funny, awkward pause as each expects the other to grab ice cream and the very real, frustrating pause as Emily struggles to find the words to explain something shitty that she did. It’s a quiet show in general, when compared to most of HBO’s offerings — I can’t imagine the rabid, bloodthirsty fans of Game of Thrones or True Detective flocking to Dolly & Em — but that’s probably why HBO is burning off the episodes so quickly and oddly: two episodes a night, every Wednesday, so the series will conclude within just three short weeks. It’s also why I liked the first two episodes as much as I did. It’s a nice change of pace from the loud, fast-paced dramas that I’ve been watching. It’s energetic at points, but it’s calmer than even Girls and Looking.

Dolly Wells and Emily Mortimer both play fictional, “exaggerated” versions of themselves (Emily is, as all exaggerated versions of celebrities are on television, alarmingly self-obsessed but doesn’t care) and the show has the requisite celebrity cameos (Susan Sarandon is especially fun). Yet this isn’t the coke-fueled, orgy-filled, debaucherous version of Hollywood that we so often see in these types of shows. They take a few hits off a joint, they have uncomfortable moments in hot tubs, and they argue in bathrooms. Both Wells and Mortimer are no strangers to this embarrassing world, and their insight into it is simultaneously fascinating and hard to watch.

Doll and Em are both a little damaged and a little fucked up, which is what makes them such good leads (and what made me hesitant to watch the entire series that was sent to critics; I want to prolong my TV friendship with these women, if only for another two weeks). It’s unfair and wrong to compare it to the flawless Enlightened, but I suspect it will be similarly received: a small, core group of fans that adore the show to pieces but not much consideration elsewhere. 

Still, it’s a nice little gem that does deserve consideration. There is a lot bubbling underneath the surface here, like the importance of female friendship (and how flawed it can be), the competition between two childhood friends, and the hints of jealousy. There are role reversals and hidden secrets, possible betrayals, and commentary on aging. In one of my favorite exchanges, before a spontaneous hot tub session, Emily asks, “Aren’t we too old for this?” and Dolly laughs that they’ve got about five minutes left. With such a short series, it feels like that’s all we have left of Doll & Em, and it isn’t enough.

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