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Thursday, March 20th, 2014

HBO's 'Doll & Em' Exposes Female Friendship For What it Really Is: High Farce

I’ve always preferred the original The Office to its fattened up American counterpart. Why take nine seasons to do what’s already been done in one? Who was it that said, “Brevity is the soul of wit”? British guy, right? The Brits have always known how to pack a punch, and nothing on television packs more soul-searching comedy into its half-hour episodes than Doll & Em, which premiered last night on HBO.

The series was created by and stars Emily Mortimer (The Newsroom) and her real life best friend, British actress Dolly Wells. In twenty seconds of opening credits we get the set-up: Dolly is left in tears by a man, Emily steps off a red carpet to take her call, and the title rolls over a childhood photo of the two. Best friends, one’s a successful actress, and one’s in tears. Bam. The power dynamic plays out in ways both cringe inducing and delightfully familiar when Dolly moves to LA to be Emily’s assistant.

In an early scene, Dolly wonders about her assistant duties. “Should I get you coffee?” she asks, “Don’t be silly,” comes the reply. Well, once in awhile, sure, if you happen to be up early. “You know what I like, it’s just a latte.” Dolly diligently scribbles “latte” on her little notepad. A beat. “With extra foam, I like it really foamy.” Dolly scribbles and underlines ”foamy.” Another beat. “In a medium cup.” Sure, we’ve heard the Hollywood coffee joke before. But, we’ve heard them all before, right? It’s those beats between Emily’s heightening demands, struggling to keep her eyes open, balancing a glass of red wine on her stomach, and Dolly’s eager scribbling that make this scene and this show so palpably familiar and so refreshingly unlike anything else on television.

The series feels like my favorite flavor of independent film; incisive comedy mined from uncomfortable real life moments. No surprise when the director and co-writer is Azazel Jacobs, a much admired indie film director with a penchant for blending reality into his narrative films (he once cast his parents as parents.) The real life chemistry between Wells and Mortimer certainly helps, although I would argue any good actresses could have played these parts, so tightly and specifically written by Wells, Mortimer and Jacobs. The dialogue feels loose and naturalistic, and I found biting my thumb wondering what they were going to say next. Though it feels improvised, according to Jacobs the first episode and Hollywood cameos were semi-improvised, the rest is too good not to have been written.

Those Hollywood cameos provide cheap thrills, but a deserved cheapness, like chowing down on a Nathan’s hot dog at Coney Island. If you can get Susan Sarandon to smoke a joint on camera, coolly and a touch too proudly asking “Sativa?” you may as well go for it. Give the people what they want. The Hollywood insider angle has rankled some critics, who find the bit tired. But Doll & Em does not give us the Playboy parties of Entourage, or golf course faux pas of Curb Your Enthusiasm. This Hollywood feels more accessible and frankly, quite dull, as our British heroines would say. It’s no wonder Emily is willing to pay to keep her best friend around. Though her Hollywood ennui is surely meant to be funny (and it is), when she bemoans a “boring party” that served “grey meat,” I actually believe her.

Tensions rise in the third episode as Emily struggles to cry during a scene on the set of what everyone keeps calling “the female Godfather,” (I’d like to see that movie). As we learned in an earlier episode, Dolly has no trouble crying on cue, and she can’t help but tear up, taking quite seriously her role as “Mourner Number Two.” From behind camera we hear the director say, “Great, push in,” and the camera does, right past Emily to Dolly, sobbing uncontrollably. “Great work out there,” says a baseball-capped John Cusack. That Dolly knows all too well how this might embitter Emily does not seem to stop her from doing it. This, my friends, is the great paradox of female intimacy.

So painfully and absurdly rendered by these so-called best friends, all the competitive nonsense, bruised egos, and passive aggression becomes exposed for what it truly is: high farce. And it is done here with far more grit and charm than the low stakes roommate break-up posing as dramatic crescendo you’ll see on Girls. These women care about each other, no more or less than they care about their careers and getting laid. When one thing gets in the way of one of the others, feelings are bound to get hurt. They don’t talk it to death like we Americans would, they apologize and move on. Stiff upper lip and all that.

After all, how can we deal with the complexities of being a woman and having feelings if we can’t laugh at ourselves? It’s a ridiculous thing, navigating a man’s world with all this conflicting sensitivity and ruthless ambition. We can’t do it alone. Any why should we? We should all be as lucky as Doll & Em are, to have a best friend who knows exactly how we like our lattes.

Judith Dry is a comedian and writer living in Brooklyn. She writes film and TV criticism Indiewire, and shares too much personal information on twitter.