Doll & Em is what you’d call low-stakes TV. Nobody gets killed on this HBO show, there are no ghosts or zombie or car chases or superheroes, the fate of the world never hangs in the balance. But if you stand back and look at it in the context of the rest of television, what’s onscreen is remarkable: a realistic friendship between two realistic women existing in something resembling the real world.
That “something resembling” qualifier is directed at the setting: the plasticine world of Hollywood, where a successful British actress named Em (Emily Mortimer) has moved to star in what’s repeatedly described as a female version of The Godfather, even though the film’s oddly awkward young director Mike (Aaron Himelstein) hates hearing it described that way. The story begins during the credits when Em’s best friend Doll (Dolly Wells, Mortimer’s real-life pal) calls her from London to tearfully report a breakup (the call interrupts a red carpet appearance with Bradley Cooper). Em invites her to Los Angeles to become her personal assistant. Friendship and business can mix, as it turns out, but not without a bit of awkwardness, and moments in which one woman incidentally or purposefully blurs the two, the better to gain a momentary advantage.
As envisioned by series creators Mortimer and Wells and Azazel Jacobs (Terri), Doll & Em, which airs on Wednesdays at 10, has the feel of a mid-’90s, femme-centric American indie flick (Nicole Holofcener’s Walking and Talking comes to mind). Much of the dialogue is improvised, sometimes charmingly, other times shakily. Most of the situations are mundane. The humor comes from observing the minute details of Doll and Em’s friendship and learning the different ways in which, despite their deep and real affection, they delude themselves and each other, and sometimes scold or deceive each other without consciously intending to.
The showbiz setting gives some of the moments a glamorous or vaguely surreal twist, as in the second episode, when Doll attends a party at the director’s house, and ends up babysitting a young boy who, in Mike’s movie, will be playing the young son of Susan Sarandon. (Sarandon plays herself, in a refreshingly unflattering way, as a high-maintenance queen bee type who demands apologies for nonexistent infractions and bogarts another party guest’s joint without even being offered a puff.) The setting also lets the show comment on the plight of women in male-driven industries of all types, using the familiar backdrop of the showbiz satire as a kind of rhetorical fig leaf. When Em mentions to an older woman at the party (Pamela Dunlap) that she’s having trouble connecting with her director, she gets reassured in a way that doesn’t sound all that reassuring: When an actress ages, “[men] don’t want to fuck you anymore, so you finally get to be the woman you always wanted to be, finally.” Um, thanks?
Despite its refreshing commitment to realism, Doll & Em is ultimately too relaxed and meandering for its own good. There are times when you may wish it had embraced the occasional cliches with more gusto, as when the director takes a liking to Doll and an All About Eve situation starts taking shape, or when Doll and Em become attracted to the same man (a handsome manipulator with a beautiful house with a hot tub, who tells the same charmingly philosophical anecdotes to any woman he fancies). But Mortimer and Wells make a great team. They interact with the easy intimacy of people who truly are friends, and whose artistry turns their friendship into an extension of their art, for better or worse.