There are real celebrities who’ve hired their best friends to be their personal assistants, but you have to imagine that it’s the rare relationship that could survive the surreal strain of such a set-up. Being a personal assistant involves enacting an uncomfortable simulacra of actual friendship in which one person does the other all kinds of little favors — driving him or her to work, picking up coffee, dry cleaning, keeping schedules straight, doling out affirmations — and the recipient, instead of later responding in kind, offers up a paycheck. It’s an intimate arrangement in which, no matter how close, one person is the talent and the other is the help and there’s little delineation between when work ends and off-time begins, meaning any preexisting rapport blurs with the professional solicitousness the job requires.
In “Doll & Em,” the HBO miniseries premiering Wednesday, March 19th at 10pm, Emily Mortimer (playing herself) invites her childhood best friend Dolly Wells (doing the same) to Los Angeles, where the former is shooting a film called “Valerie Lee.” But it’s not really a job, just a laugh, a way to hang out — or so the two insist, because Emily doesn’t like to think of herself as being Hollywood enough to require the coddling of an assistant, and Dolly doesn’t want to think of herself as the employee. No, they’re just two old pals spending some time together in sunny California, except that one of them is famous and the other is running errands for her. As the stress of the shoot builds and the latte orders grow more complicated, things grow tense between the two.
But not too tense. “Doll & Em” is 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. Mortimer and Wells, who created the series together and wrote it with director Azazel Jacobs (“Terri”), are best friends in real life, and clearly have brought some of their own personal history and past complications to the table in putting together the story. The underlying love the two women have for one another is constantly being muddied by Emily’s status, Dolly’s resentment and the general craziness of show business.
“Doll & Em” is less on the mark when it comes to the latter, to taking on Hollywood ridiculousness, where it has a lot of competition from other mocking self-portraits like “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Life’s Too Short,” “Episodes” and, on the film side, “The Trip,” all of which come to mind as it unfolds over six half-hour episodes. Chloë Sevigny, John Cusack, Andy Garcia and Susan Sarandon are among the famous faces who show up as fictionalized version of themselves, and they’re treated very gently, used to reflect back Emily’s fears about not being good enough, about not being liked by the producers, by the director and by the crew.
The series does Wells, an established actress in the UK who’s recently appeared in series like “Some Girls” and “Spy,” a disservice by stripping the on-screen Dolly of any performing background — she’s made into a restaurant employee distressed by her breakup with an awful ex, which is perhaps meant to make her the entree into the strange world of a movie set, but strains credulity when she displays unexpected acting talent that draws attention away from Emily.
The series is called “Doll & Em,” but it’s Mortimer’s half of the story that commands more attention and complexity, tangled as it is with fears about getting older, about never getting another role, about feeling like an outside, losing her identity as a British person and becoming more L.A. There’s so much of this packed into the relatively brief series that it feels like it could (and perhaps should) have been expanded, building out on the delicate scenes in which Ben Chaplin (also playing himself) teases her about the American intonation of her greeting, or in which she runs into her unstable brother while home for the holidays, an encounter that suggests a world of complications and resentments.
Wells is a pleasant presence on screen, but doesn’t bring the same vulnerability or sense of autobiography — her Dolly is a more generic character, and the series presumes we side with her by believing the very idea of a personal assistant to be ridiculous. She’s best when she’s with Emily, navigating an insanely heightened version of the power imbalances in any friendship, nestling barbs in regular conversation and providing honesty when it’s needed — and sometimes when it’s not wanted at all.