The Brits do seem to love lampooning Hollywood, even if most of the shows, from Ricky Gervais’ showbiz-centric series to Showtime’s “Episodes,” mostly revel in familiar stereotypes. While no stranger to that tendency, what mildly sets “Doll & Em” apart is the female friendship at its core, which grows more interesting once the episodes start getting past the improbability of the premise, and the women’s stunning naivete that transforming their relationship from bosom buddies to employer-assistant won’t have negative consequences. Despite receiving the kiss-off treatment scheduling-wise, there are worthwhile moments here for those who take the full six-episode trip.
HBO clearly doesn’t harbor much faith its audience will buy that ticket, which might explain why it’s dispensing with “Doll” via back-to-back episodes over three successive Wednesdays. And while co-star Emily Mortimer still has her gig on “The Newsroom,” and some Hollywood celebs like Susan Sarandon and Chloe Sevigny drop by, one suspects the ratings for “Doll & Em” will make “Enlightened” look like “The Voice.”
Written by stars Mortimer and Dolly Wells with director Azazel Jacobs, the series features Mortimer’s Em as a successful British actress working on a Hollywood movie when she gets a teary-eyed call from childhood chum Dolly, who has just broken up with her boyfriend. Since it’s all dealt with in an opening-credit musical montage, we don’t get to actually hear the part where Em suggests that Doll come to L.A. to work as her assistant, or where Doll foolishly takes her up on the idea.
What ensues, naturally, is decidedly awkward, with Em insisting Doll is really her friend, not her employee, to anyone who’ll listen, but still subjecting her to menial tasks. Doll, meanwhile, hangs out with other assistants and experiences indignities at the hands of Hollywood types like Sarandon, who in one of those self-spoofing cameos enlists Doll to watch her kid. (Doll makes the mistake, in one of the funniest moments, of referring to the actress’ son as her grandson.)
Much of the serialized plot deals with the making of the movie within the show (please don’t call it a female version of “The Godfather,” as everyone seems intent on doing). Yet while Em struggles with the role and the double-talking director (Aaron Himelstein), Doll finds herself distracted by one of the producers (the dreamy Jonathan Cake), before her path takes an unexpected, mostly unconvincing turn.
Get past the particulars, and “Doll & Em” does contain insights about the evolving nature of friendships, especially when two people’s lives go in different directions. In that respect, there’s an underlying class distinction that probably plays more comfortably in the U.K., the palm trees and hot tubs notwithstanding.
Mortimer and Wells are both fine, juggling dramatic moments with more farcical ones, but this is still a fairly slight project even by HBO’s less-exacting standards. And after her adventures in the equivalent of Oz, the slightly shell-shocked Doll would probably agree with a line associated with another Em: There’s no place like home.