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HBO's "Doll & Em": Female Frenemies in a Hollywood Satire

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire March 19, 2014 at 4:18PM

A brief palate-cleanser between "Girls" and "Game of Thrones," "Doll & Em" offers tired Hollywood satire and an unusually complex portrait of a lifelong friendship.
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Dolly Wells, left, and Emily Mortimer in HBO's "Doll & Em"
Dolly Wells, left, and Emily Mortimer in HBO's "Doll & Em"

Although some critics have speculated HBO scheduling "Doll & Em," starring Emily Mortimer and Dolly Wells as fictional versions of themselves, in an atypical Wednesday-night slot as an extreme vote of no confidence, the reviews for the six-episode series offer glimmers of hope. The setting, with Mortimer playing herself as a high-maintenance actress who hires her down-on-her-luck best friend as a personal assistant, is immediately tired: Did you know that people in Hollywood are vain and needy and insecure? Well, you do now! But once the show establishes that premise, it's able to get into the friendship between Em and her lifelong friend, which though it is fictional (and they stress this a lot) nonetheless draws strength from the actresses' familiarity with each other. Airing two episodes at a time for three weeks, "Doll & Em," which was directed by American Azazel Jacobs, is too brief to serve as much more than a palate-cleanser between "Girls" and "Game of Thrones," but at least a few critics -- more British than American, and more women than men -- think it's worth the brief commitment.

Alan Sepinwall, HitFix

"Doll & Em" is excellent at one thing: depicting the complicated ebbs and flows of a kind of female friendship where one friend is content only when she's the alpha, and will badly undercut the beta to make this clear. The problem is that this dark, observant comedy about an unhealthy friendship is inserted into a familiar Hollywood satire about pampered, neurotic movie stars, and every beat of that material is predictable and clumsy and unfunny.

David Wiegand, San Francisco Chronicle

Sporadically entertaining though it is, "Doll & Em" could have been even more interesting if Mortimer had played herself as down to earth and entirely free of the kind of craziness we expect from Hollywood stars. That kind of premise would have been more challenging to the show's writers-creators, but it would have made it harder to fall into the predictability trap.

Alessandra Stanley, the New York Times

"Doll & Em" trades on many familiar show business stereotypes, but it also turns some conventions upside down: Usually, in Hollywood, it's the boss and the employee who pretend to be friends; here, it’s the friends who pretend to be boss and employee.

Leslie Felperin, Variety

The names will help draw audiences initially, but they'll stay for the show's canny depiction of the subtle power games played out in feminine friendships, especially those little jabs of passive-aggressive sniping disguised as compliments and the way acts of generosity can poison friendships. Although the tone is largely comic, complete with pratfalls and zingers, there’s a bittersweet undertow, particularly in the later stages, that ups the emotional stakes satisfyingly.

Ellen E. Jones, the Independent

It's an intriguing portrait of how resentment can simmer away in friendships, only partially obscured by genuine affection, but it would be much more intriguing if it dared scrape closer to the bone. Alas, Mortimer seems to have spent all her promotional interviews attempting to reassure the world that this on-screen relationship bears no resemblance whatsoever to the real Doll and Em, and I'm inclined to believe her.

Florence Waters, the Telegraph

On the surface, not a great deal happens. But beneath the surface, a minute drama is being played out as the actresses bravely unpick -- and send-up -- the quirks of close female friendships. 

Pilot Viruet, Flavorwire

There is a lot bubbling underneath the surface here, like the importance of female friendship (and how flawed it can be), the competition between two childhood friends, and the hints of jealousy. 

Erik Adams, the A.V. Club

It’s painfully funny at times, and occasionally poignant. In between those peaks, however, it’s needlingly formless.

Alison Willmore, Indiewire

A light, sometimes silly trifle of a series, though at its heart is a formidable portrait of a female friendship complicated by success, competition and insecurity. 

Emily Mortimer and Dolly Wells are probably just as sick as Em is of the straitjacket that says a "good" role for women has to involve being a role model of "strong" female behavior. And so they went out and made themselves a show in which they both have the freedom to behave like jerks. Watch it through your fingers.


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