March 20, 2014

THE SKED Series Premiere Review: “Doll & Em”


DOLL & EM:  Wednesday 9PM on HBO – If Nothing Else Is On…

HBO’s romance with quirky British comedies of discomfort (and with the look and feel of micro-budgeted indie film) continues with DOLL & EM.  It doesn’t hail from the Ricky Gervais team that gave the network Extras, Hello Ladies, Life’s Too Short and The Ricky Gervais Show, but it might as well.  This time, despite all its enthusiasm for the subgenre, HBO is showing markedly little commitment to the effort, letting Dolly & Em fend for itself on Wednesday nights without any other original programming as support and with little marketing, and burning off its 6 half-hour episodes over 3 weeks, which suggests that even in the network’s eyes, it’s a minor piece of work.

Doll & Em is created by real-life best friends Dolly Wells and Emily Mortimer (and written by the two of them with director Azazel Jacobs, whose Momma’s Man and Terri won praise on the film festival circuit, but were little seen beyond that).  It’s built on the no-longer-fresh trope of the two leads playing skewed versions of “themselves,” with Mortimer as the successful actress Emily and Wells her less-successful childhood chum Dolly who, after a break-up, comes to work as Em’s assistant while Em shoots a film in LA.

The first of tonight’s back-to-back premiere half-hours had little going on beyond the obvious passive-aggressive stress of one friend going to work for another (when Dolly casually asks for Em’s coffee preferences, Em provides them in great detail).  The second episode was slightly more interesting, not so much for its light frosting of Hollywood satire (Susan Sarandon and Chloe Sevigny appeared in “self” cameos), as for the dynamics of the friendship between Dolly and Em.  The married Em, whose husband and children are in Europe, swoops in and makes an attempt to seduce the producer of her film (Jonathan Cake) when it looks like he’s interested in Dolly, and the scene between the two women afterwards almost wordlessly makes clear that this is a bitter pattern that goes far back in their friendship.  (The producer of the the series, incidentally, is Emily Mortimer’s real-life husband Alessandro Nivola.)

For that few minutes, Doll & Em suggests the potential of going beyond its gimmicky premise and familiar topics of parody.  Mostly, though, it’s content with the mumblecore, semi-improvised, punchline-less pace of a thousand awkward Sundance comedies, wearing its shaky handheld camerawork and lengthy pauses as badges of artistic integrity.  Mortimer and Wells are both likable performers, but neither is particularly gripping here.

Expectations are clearly low for Doll & Em (as is the budget), which feels more like something streamed than programming on a premium pay service.  If future episodes can live up to the best moments of its premiere, though, it’s an experiment that could possibly pay off.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."