First, you squirm. Then, you laugh.
At least, that seems to be the game plan best-pal actresses Emily Mortimer (The Newsroom) and Dolly Wells (Bridget Jones's Diary) had in mind when they imagined a semi-improvised, sort-of-fictional series in which they play off-kilter renderings of themselves functioning within a slightly skewed version of Hollywood.
The goal was uncomfortable humour. With the new six-part HBO series Doll & Em, they get the job half done.
Doll & Em, which premières with back-to-back episodes tonight on HBO Canada (check listings for time), does very well with the uncomfortable bit, but misses the mark almost completely when it comes to generating humour. And because of that, it compares very poorly to similarly constructed series such as Entourage, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Episodes that have explored this faux-Hollywood territory much more effectively.
In Doll & Em, Mortimer plays a fictionalized version of herself, a British actress working on a Hollywood movie. In the series' opening-title montage, we see her walking the red carpet at a showbiz event, side by side with actor Bradley Cooper, when she takes a cell-phone call from best girlfriend Dolly (Wells), who is back home in England and has just gone through a nasty breakup with her live-in boyfriend.
By the time the opening credits have concluded, Dolly has accepted Emily's invitation and jetted her way to sunny L.A., where she can mourn the end of her romance by taking on the easy-peasy task of working as Emily's personal assistant.
Emily insists that she'll be relied on much more as a friend than a paid staff person, but then quickly (albeit quietly) begins to dole out menial tasks, such as detailing just how she likes her café latte prepared and delivered. From the first minutes of their employer/employee relationship, a wedge is being driven right through the middle of their friendship.
The awkward moments accumulate, including a trip to a party at the home of one of the movie's producers, where Dolly is relegated to a back room with other assistants and celebrities' kids while Emily mingles at poolside with Susan Sarandon and other A-listers.
As production on the movie continues, Dolly forges tight friendships with other below-the-line crew people while at the same time doing a generally terrible job of assisting Emily with anything. The longer we watch, the harder it is to believe that the two women were ever friends in the first place, or that anybody at all would want to be friends with either of them.
As written here, by the stars themselves (with help from series director Azazel Jacobs), Emily and Dolly are self-absorbed, unkind and not much fun to be around. Each is ambitious on a scale that suits her level in show business, and neither hesitates when it comes to tossing friendship aside if a better offer comes along.
All of these qualities have been seen before in the showbiz-satirizing comedies mentioned above, but the writers of those shows were able to effectively mine the laughter out of the cringe-worthy moments. Doll & Em does not find the funny very often, so viewers are left, more often than not, with lingering discomfort that is unleavened by mirth.
Which is too bad, because it really felt like there was an opportunity here. Determined to find out if Doll & Em could ever deliver on its promise, I previewed all six episodes in the hope that it would gain comedic momentum and serve up a big, funny finish.
Alas, the laughs never arrived. And the make-believe movie wrapped, and Doll & Em went back to the business of trying to sort out their tattered friendship. Which was fine, because in the end, all the fictional and semi-improvised versions of Emily and Dolly really deserve is each other.
firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @BradOswald