Hollywood Ending

Azazel Jacobs, Doll & Em, 2013–, still from a TV show on Sky Channel and HBO. Emily Mortimer and Dolly Wells.

A SMART AND WITTY TWIST on the reality genre, Doll & Em is a six-part series created by actors Emily Mortimer and Dolly Wells, starring Emily Mortimer and Dolly Wells, and written by Emily Mortimer, Dolly Wells, and Azazel Jacobs. Mortimer’s husband, Alessandro Nivola, is the producer, and Jacobs directed the entire shebang. Mortimer and Wells are British, as is the series, which was made for the Sky Channel’s “Sky Living” and then acquired by HBO. Five of the six half-hour episodes, however, are located in LA.

So is this an incestuous selfie—smug Brits with excellent educations and cultural pedigrees (Mortimer is the daughter of the late novelist and playwright John Mortimer, Wells of the late actor and writer John Wells)—sending up Hollywood? Happily, not so much.

Wells and Mortimer, who have been best friends since childhood, do indeed play characters named Emily Mortimer and Dolly Wells, who also have been best friends since childhood. A photograph of the real Mortimer and Wells taken nearly thirty-five years ago is a touchstone for the show. But the situation in which they, as writers, have placed themselves as characters is unlikely to have occurred. Did I mention that Doll & Em is executive produced by Andrew Eaton, who also did the same for Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip (2010–), in which Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon play, to hilarious effect, characters very much like themselves but in a fictive situation? Think of Doll & Em as the female version of The Trip, the laughter it provokes more ambivalent and, at least for female viewers, laced with self-recognition.

The setup is primed for a disaster that gets worse episode by episode. On impulse, Emily rescues Doll, who has broken up with her lunatic boyfriend and is waitressing in a hip London restaurant, by offering her a free trip to LA and a job as her personal assistant. Emily is shooting a movie, described by everyone except its twit of a director as a female Godfather. It is her chance to transition from ingénue to leading lady, and since she’s already turned forty, probably the only opportunity she’s going to have. But if she thought Doll would offer her the support of a best friend and a personal assistant rolled into one, she had it all wrong.

Personal assistants need to be omnipresent but invisible, attentive to their employers’ every need, greeting the most impossible demands with a reassuring “No problem.” Doll, however, is physically and verbally impulsive and unabashedly expressive. She makes her presence known, on the set and off, unintentionally upstaging the reserved Emily at every turn. But when Doll decides that she wants to be an actor too and she’s offered a screen test for a role that Emily wanted, everything explodes.

What makes the show a pleasure is that both women are lovely and great fun to watch. There is a real-life intimacy and a shared history that can’t be faked. That’s why we care when an imbalance of power that neither of them can be straightforward about—they are both passive-aggressive—turns the friendship into a train wreck.

It’s all in the details, like the moment when they both decide they want ice cream but neither of them gets up to go to the kitchen. If they were simply friends, then Emily, who has invited Doll for a visit, would get off her ass and serve the ice cream. But now that Doll is the assistant, it’s part of her vague job description to fulfill Emily’s wants and needs, including her desire for ice cream. Friendship and work, power and status, competition and insecurity—there are no easy solutions.

Jacobs, whose not quite autobiographical feature Momma’s Man (2008) starred his own parents, Ken and Flo Jacobs, and was set in the magical Chambers Street loft where he grew up, is a perfect director for this reality-tinged fiction. The scenes between Emily and Doll have an improvisational feel, the camera hanging around long enough to let us know that what’s not being said is what’s important. Just as impressive is how the daily grind of shooting a mainstream independent movie is evoked on what was clearly a bare-bones budget, simply out of dialogue, behavior, and a smattering of star cameos. Susan Sarandon, Andy Garcia, and Chloë Sevigny have their moments, but Doll and Em (or should the billing be Em and Doll?) are the show.

Doll & Em debuts on HBO on Wednesday, March 19 at 10 PM.