tv review

Dollface Is a Frothy Feminist Comedy in Search of Deeper Meaning

Dollface stars Kat Dennings as Jules, a woman attempting to rekindle the life and friendships she left behind during her failed relationship. Photo: Erin Simkin/Hulu

Early in the third episode of Dollface, the new Jordan Weiss–created Hulu series premiering in its entirety on Friday, is a fantasy sequence that charts the internal machinations of the show’s protagonist, Jules, played by Kat Dennings. She’s a 30-something trying to refashion her life after her five-year relationship ends with her unexpected, unceremonious dumping. After Jules gets off the phone with her career-minded friend Madison (Brenda Song), her office is plunged into darkness, then transforms into the set of a colorful game show hosted by Cat Lady, a cat-headed trickster figure played by Beth Grant, who doles out advice and operates as a major figure in Jules’s imagination. Will Jules go to Madison’s work event celebrating her vegan-chef client or choose what’s behind door No. 1?

Fantasy sequences like this are threaded throughout the series: a desert full of stereotypical cool girls, a receptionist at a terminal for the newly single who tells Jules her friendships have expired, a gaggle of fedora-wearing men betting on whether she’ll go to a work retreat as if it’s a horse race. At times, these function as pleasant diversions, but they lack the aesthetic and narrative punch necessary to make them feel like anything more than window dressing obscuring the fact that Dollface doesn’t have that much to say.

Over the past decade, television has, with varying levels of success, used feminist concerns about things like motherhood, power, and desire as the thematic engine for series ranging from I Love Dick to The Good Fight. Dollface seeks to do the same, aiming to be a frothy feminist delight as it considers ideas such as loneliness for modern women, the importance of sisterhood, and what it means to be a feminist. But it handles these ideas with such shallowness it ends up saying nothing meaningful at all. The characters are so thinly drawn they’re rendered as caricatures, dampening the few sparks of humor we’re afforded. Its feminist talking points are surface-level, especially within a television landscape bursting with messy, intriguing female characters pushing feminist considerations to deeper levels. The series, of which I was able to watch all 10 episodes for review, wants to have it both ways, celebrating sisterhood while skewering a certain brand of upwardly mobile, millennial womanhood that some of the main characters inadvertently reflect — which leaves the show muddled in its outlook and, at its worst, vaguely insulting.

A lot of the show’s issues stem from its characterizations. Jules’s problems with being in groups of women are mentioned often but are never properly explored. Are they mere circumstance or internalized sexism? The show seems too afraid of existing in gray areas to answer that question with any honesty. Madison is strictly career driven and overbearing, but there’s little else to distinguish her. Stella (Shay Mitchell) is a quasi-socialite rendered with a bit more dimension, as she desires to enroll in business school and be more than just a pretty party girl. (Although her character spotlights how issues of class and race are largely absent from Dollface’s faux-feminist landscape.) Jules’s coworker Izzy (Esther Povitsky) exemplifies the series’ grating and cutesy nature; I was never sure if we were supposed to like her or make fun of her.

Dollface could have been a fun, forgettable diversion, the kind of show meant to be watched as you fold laundry. But its approach to feminism, which it name-checks, strikes a sour note. This is best exemplified by Celeste (Malin Akerman), Jules’s boss, who runs the women-focused wellness company Wöom and speaks with a rank narcissism she confuses for enlightenment. Celeste is obviously intended to skewer Gwyneth Paltrow and other self-involved, wellness-focused, but capitalist-minded white women. Wöom itself, with its color-coded bookshelves and hushed pink tones, seems to be poking fun at the women-only co-working space The Wing. Celeste’s ridiculousness reaches its zenith in episode eight, which includes a cameo from producer Margot Robbie as an overly serious, archly constructed mystic running a work retreat. She disregards personal space, talks down to people at every turn, and is completely unaware of the rot in her own life, all of which could add an intriguing wrinkle to the series’ critique of the companies that adopt a veneer of feminism for capitalist success and the women behind them. But such an approach is muddled by the fact that the lead characters are part and parcel of a similar kind of femininity the show is trying to critique. The penultimate episode, bluntly titled “Feminist,” takes a page from The Wizard of Oz to consider what it means to be a feminist when you’re stuck between two women on opposite sides of an argument, which flattens feminism to personal tiffs. When faced with a feminist icon at a rally, the show’s leads ask questions like: Is it okay to want to be beautiful as a feminist? And does being a feminist mean supporting all women? Seriously? Shouldn’t the leads have moved beyond such sub–Feminism 101 talk ages ago?

Just as troubling is how the show imagines female friendship as a cloying enterprise as Jules stumbles through rekindling and holding on to the friendships she left behind during her failed relationship. In Dollface, female friendship is characterized by Sunday-morning brunches, clothing coordination, advice that doesn’t take into account what someone needs, and occasionally, but never often enough, moments of genuine affection. The world of women in Dollface is Pinterest-ready but neither deeply felt nor illuminating about the modern business of being a woman.

Dennings has a warm, spiky presence that in and of itself is fun to watch, but she isn’t enough to surmount the issues troubling the show, namely the lack of chemistry between Jules and the rest of the cast. And while by the end of ten episodes I could rattle off a bunch of tidbits about Jules — her cat, her propensity to clean when she’s upset, her homebody nature — I still felt as if I didn’t really know her as a person, nor what she wants out of this next chapter of her life. She’s more a bundle of traits and ideas than a character with a complex internal life, despite Dennings’s efforts. There’s space for the kind of show Dollface wants to be — warm, inviting, a bit kooky in its approach to womanhood and female friendships. Unfortunately, Dollface isn’t that show.

Dollface Is a Frothy Feminist Comedy in Search of Meaning