Ending the first two episodes of HBO’s new limited series “Doll & Em” is War’s “Why Can’t We Be Friends?,” which evokes a different reaction each time. At the end of the first episode, its inclusion is humorously ironic. Over the course of the show’s second episode, its repeated usage strikes a deeply unsettling tone. In both cases, the chord struck could not be more deft.
Partially based on the real-life friendship between title characters Dolly Wells (“Spy”) and Emily Mortimer (“The Newsroom”), the show revolves around a fictionalized version of Wells, a working actor in her own right, moving to Los Angeles to become the assistant to her childhood best friend and newly minted celebrity Em.
The concept itself immediately projects discomfort, as the line between friendship and employment immediately becomes blurred. Unlike similar stories in this vein, Doll is more at fault for this than Em. With only six half-hour episodes, Wells and Mortimer waste no time squeezing every ounce of passive-aggressive behavior out of their alter ego personas.
Rather than riding out the central idea to its inevitable end, “Doll & Em” merely uses it as a conduit to tackle several other themes. The show appears to be working on several different levels; it is a showbiz satire, an exploration of female relationships, and a descent into the beginnings of a midlife crisis, often all at the same time.
“Doll & Em” utilizes a very lo-fi, unpolished aesthetic; scene coverage is kept to a minimum and the handheld camerawork is disorienting in its shakiness. This proves to be a nice change of pace from the overt faux-documentary style that has grown in popularity since “The Office” and “Modern Family,” as it essentially accomplishes the same thing. “Doll & Em” embraces the comedic potential of the pause, allowing everything Wells and Mortimer do not say to each other speak just as loudly as what they do say.
The gauche production values are matched only by the raw nature of the on-screen chemistry of Wells and Mortimer, who both portray a simultaneous affection and resentment for each other with surgical precision. That said, something feels wrong with the pacing of the series. Presumably, the six episodes set to air over the next few weeks are all there will be, resulting in a story arc that feels hurried. Character development is dense and swift, yet the plot lines moving it along feel especially lofty.
“Doll & Em” is quite funny and compulsively watchable, embracing its darker tinges with a cocky assuredness that has become par for the course on HBO, especially in its British imports like this one. It is regrettable, however, that Wells and Mortimer seem to know how to say what they want to the audience about as much as their characters do to each other. There are interesting ideas gracing almost every scene of “Doll & Em” yet no sense of urgency, making it a moderately interesting bridge on the HBO schedule between “True Detective” and “Game of Thrones,” but not much more.
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