tv review

Sally4Ever Is an Unbridled Squirm Fest

Julia Davis and Catherine Shepherd as the happy-ish couple in Sally4Ever. Photo: HBO

The premise of Sally4Ever — a woman in a drab relationship leaves her longtime boyfriend to have an affair with a woman — suggests this will be a series about a lesbian’s sexual awakening. In reality, it’s a British comedy about a marketing executive ignoring every obvious sign that she shouldn’t be in a relationship with any of the hideous people she keeps attracting.

Broadcast in the U.K. on Sky Atlantic, and premiering Sunday on HBO here in the States, Sally4Ever is as squirmy, if not squirmier, than the original Office. It’s not quite as consistently funny as that discomfort-inducing work, though it does get more amusing as it goes on. There’s a cumulative effect that comes from spending time with Sally (Catherine Shepherd), her needy soon-to-be ex David (Alex Macqueen) and her just-as-needy new girlfriend Emma (Julia Davis, the show’s creator, writer, and director), that turns their annoying tendencies into a full-blown behavioral horror show.

But you’ll need a certain constitution to reach that moment where your gasps start turning into giggles. The first episode tests that constitution right away by introducing us to the daily banalities of the ultralame relationship between Sally and David, a boyfriend who is so milquetoast that even the word milquetoast sounds like a thrill ride by comparison. David proposes to Sally at a terribly awkward moment — in their kitchen, after Sally announces that she’s going to bed even though the sun is still shining — and cries and whines until she says yes. David, who has already procured his mother’s wedding dress for Sally to wear on the big day, is the kind of man who would happily attend Motherboy on an annual basis. He gets off on drinking hot tea, a capella singing, and rubbing lotion between his toes. Doing all of three of those things at once would be the hottest Saturday night of his lifetime. In short, he makes Paul Jillian, Lindsey’s bland, wimpy, ultradull ex-husband on You’re the Worst, look like Jackson Maine.

Even though she’s been in a relationship with David for a decade, Sally knows she has no business marrying this man. Feeling restless, she goes to a club late at night while David’s asleep, knowing that she’ll run into Emma, a sexy and mystery woman she spotted on the Tube who happens to be a singer-actress performing at the venue. The two hook up and in short order, Emma and Sally are using the home Sally shares with David as their own personal love den while he’s out of town. Toward the end of episode one, there’s an explicit sex scene between the two that’s juxtaposed with images of David flossing in his hotel room that’s meant to be audacious, but lands, at least for me, somewhere between bold and crude.

In an indie movie with a similar sort of premise, that first night with Emma would change everything for Sally. The joke of Sally4Ever is that it changes absolutely nothing. Sally’s still the same indecisive creature she’s always been. Not only does she not wrestle with what this new relationship might suggest about her sexual orientation, she refuses to definitively call off her wedding to David. All she’s done by inviting Emma into the bed she once shared with David is trade one nightmare for another. And Emma is, truly, a nightmare.

While David awkwardly watches a movie with Sally and Emma, he receives a call from his mother, telling him that his father has died. “Should I pause it, or…?” Emma asks in all seriousness while David sobs. After suggesting that David has made up this business about a dead dad just to capture Sally’s attention, Emma comes along uninvited when Sally opts to drive David to see his mother. After asking whether they can get Deliveroo — a British food delivery service — while in a moving vehicle, Emma goes into histrionics after receiving news that a dear friend has been squashed by a bus. At the same time, David is in full-on weep mode about how he’s lost everything. It’s a wonder Sally doesn’t pull a Lady Bird and just jump right out of the car.

Davis, who also created the original Camping on which Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner’s HBO remake is based, is a master at being an oblivious narcissist. And so is Macqueen (Peaky Blinders), to the point where Shepherd has a hard time playing straight woman in some scenes. During that car ride, for example, it’s obvious on multiple occasions that she’s about to burst out laughing. You can’t blame her: Davis and Macqueen keep stacking self-involved comment atop hysterical fit like they’re playing a game of Unbearable Jackass Jenga. Depending on your sensibility, this will either be a riot or so gross you run screaming from whatever screen you are using to watch Sally4Ever.

My mileage varied, but I warmed to the series after three episodes, which is all that HBO provided in advance to critics. That third episode escalates matters in another story line involving Sally’s co-workers Nigel (Julian Barratt), one of the few normal people on this show, and Eleanor (Felicity Montagu), whose obsession with Nigel goes to increasingly weird places, in ways that suggest their dynamic could easily be the centerpiece of its own series. There’s something oddly daring and refreshing about Montague’s portrayal of Eleanor, who initially comes across as a wheelchair-bound, sweet cat-lady type but slowly reveals she’s entirely unhinged.

In one way or another, everyone on Sally4Ever is unhinged. If you think you can handle that cringe humor and plan to watch, just make sure you have plenty of elbow room. Trust me, you’ll need plenty of space to do all that inevitable squirming.

Sally4Ever Is an Unbridled Squirm Fest