Sally (Catherine Shepherd) is not the star of her own show — or her own life. When we meet her, she’s trudging through a job in marketing (tasked with making eggs “sexy” enough to appeal to teens) and a relationship with a fellow whose meek submissiveness is portrayed as something almost grotesque. He doesn’t realize, or chooses not to, that Sally sneaks out of their shared bed one night to go to a club and returns drunk and coated in glitter. There, she connects with Emma (Julia Davis, the show’s creator), an ultracharismatic woman whose lack of self-awareness is its own gift: It allows her to shamelessly grift her way through life, convincing the gullible, including Sally, to give her whatever she wants.
HBO’s co-production with the U.K.’s Sky airs after Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner’s “Camping” remake and shares DNA with the original “Camping,” another comedy of (bad) manners created by Julia Davis. But unlike the new “Camping,” or like much of anything produced stateside, it has an unsentimental willingness to vivisect its characters. Emma blazes her way through Sally’s life in part because Sally is willing to let her, or at least has no good counterargument.
HBO’s “Camping” has had a tendency to pull its punches — to over-explain, through endless exposition and performances that seesaw between gruesome misbehavior and a kind of saccharine sweetness, why the characters are what they are. “Sally4Ever,” by contrast, forces characters as horribly recognizable as real people in the viewers’ face. Sometimes it seems almost to go too far, as in the case of Sally’s tragic ex-boyfriend David (Alex Macqueen), shown in the series’s opening scene performing a ludicrous a cappella performance of George Michael’s “Faith” and soon after rubbing lotion into his feet. Such scenes serve perhaps as alienation effects to weed out those with constitutions too weak to handle the show’s later, masterful scenes of dischord and disharmony. Sally and David have to be a horrible couple in order to maximize the humor of Sally and Emma breaking up with David together. And Emma has to be established as a toxic narcissist in order to provide the comic engine for a small dinner party at which Emma seeks an in with a movie producer by telling increasingly outlandish lies.
Davis’s performance is as good as any comedy turn on television this year; the scene in which she tries to seduce the producer while dealing out increasingly cruel digs at his wife is a feat of comic calculation. But so too is a scene that follows, in which Sally quietly tries to defend Emma’s behavior, building to a strange monologue about the detox shakes Emma brews, ones that leave Sally purging and ill.
All of which sounds on the page, perhaps, like violent anti-comedy — mean, gross, and ugly. But characters as fully rounded as Emma and Sally, drawn to one another despite each one’s manifold flaws, could not be made to feel so complete had they not been written and performed by people who felt a certain amount of love for them. Like the very best characters, both are perpetually consistent and yet retain the capability to surprise. So, too, is “Sally4Ever’s” placement on HBO’s Sunday-night air a bit of a surprise — it’s lower-wattage than most of what ends up on the highest-profile night of cable programming. And yet its piquancy in service of characters and relationships makes it the funniest new show of the fall, and the stateside arrival of a voice whose brashness makes clear how overdue it is to break out.
“Sally4Ever,” HBO, Sun., November 11. 30 minutes. Seven episodes (three screened for review).
Cast: Julia Davis, Catherine Shepherd, Alex Macqueen, Felicity Montagu.
Executive producers: Julia Davis, Sam Bain, Jesse Armstrong.