The word “famous” probably isn’t one that you would use to describe Emily Mortimer. Respected and talented, her impressive range of work includes movies with folks like Martin Scorsese, David Mamet, Woody Allen, Kenneth Branagh, Nicole Holofcener and more, and though you would probably recognize her on the street, her name might not ring many bells with the average filmgoer. Which is what makes the premise of “Doll & Em” all the more clever, with Mortimer playing a fictionalized version of herself, that uses the backdrop of Hollywood to tell a story not about the business necessarily, but about how the dynamics of friendship can be strained when one of them is living out her dreams and the other….well, isn’t.
The concept is simple, when Dolly Wells (Mortimer’s real life best friend, and co-creator and co-writer of the show) breaks up with her longtime boyfriend, Emily flies her in from London to L.A., to work as her personal assistant, and help Dolly get back on her feet. Right from the start, the imbalance between these two both professionally and personally is throw into stark contrast. Emily is about to enter production on the ambitious “Valerie Lee,” a “The Godfather“-like movie but told from the perspective of a female protagonist (though the director Mike, played Aaron Himmelstein, is mostly reluctant to describe it as such) all while being separated from her loving husband and children in New York City. By most outward appearances, she’s got it all. But Dolly is adrift, yet determined to do right by her friend who picked up when she was at her lowest, earnestly trying to be the best assistant possible, but of course, things don’t quite work out that way.
Almost from the start, with their friendship re-contextualized into a working relationship, it finds Emily and Doll on an even more unevenly defined plane. When they attend a house party before the start of production, Dolly winds up in a separate room with the director’s son, becoming a de facto babysitter for the afternoon. Her presence in general soon begins to bristle at Emily as she struggles to prepare for the role, but is constantly distracted by Dolly who effortlessly seems to fall in good luck. She strikes up a fledgling romance of sorts with Buddy (Jonathan Cake), a producer on Emily’s movie, and even worse, during a crucial sequence in the background as an extra, Doll manages to steal an entire scene that was supposed to a centerpiece for Emily. Soon, Dolly is tight with the crew leaving Emily unable to understand or process how to deal with a friend who no longer needs her sympathy.
In the brief six-episode season, that element becomes the emotional underpinning of the show that subtly shifts from comedic to melodramatic. Friendships of any kind are often based around unspoken structures of how we perceive the other person. If you’re always the one picking up the tab or providing the shoulder to cry on, what does it mean when upward mobility and emotional stability changes that relationship? Or what happens when that friend forges down a path you never knew they were capable of? It may seem petty or superficial to perhaps be resentful or hurt, but when someone close to you embraces change and new things into their life — even if it’s getting a new boyfriend or new job — it does undeniably alter how they relate to the world, and their friends. In “Doll & Em,” that alteration takes on a new dimension when Dolly steps into the same career path as Emily.
Dolly’s background scene stealing bit earned her a fair bit of attention from those involved with the production, and soon finds her working with Emily’s agent, who sets up an audition for both women, for the same part, in a romantic comedy. It’s Dolly who gets the callback, and is flown to London to do a screentest. So fearful of upsetting her friend, Dolly doesn’t tell Emily right away; meanwhile Emily surreptitiously tries to set up Dolly with another assistant job, aiming to fix it so her best friend can stay in the country, but not drive her crazy either. When those well-intentioned but misguided acts of deception surface, the rift between the pair threatens to never be repaired again.
The last two episodes of “Doll & Em” changes gears from the lighter, hijinks filled antics at the opening of the series, to something a little more dramatic. It’s where the series really reveals its strengths, with a much better appreciation of the work Mortimer and Wells make look so easy. The bitter sting between their characters, with Dolly taking off to London for the screentest to pursue new career as an actress, and Emily back home continuing to do what she has always done, is one that’s hard to miss. When they do eventually reunite in London, that pain isn’t easily wiped away either. “Doll & Em” really understands how we can hurt friendships by selfishness or an inability to be flexible and supportive when things change. Both Emily and Dolly want the best for each other, but they are human, and their pride often gets in the way of seeing the other for who they really are.
As wonderful as it is to see the show blossom and it heads toward the finale, it does leave the opening episodes almost superfluous; the lighter tone almost make them insubstantial versus the deeper emotional weight of the latter half of the season. “Doll & Em” does require a bit of faith that the premise will pay off, but luckily Mortimer and Wells aren’t just content to riff on their real life friendship, and aim to bring some gravitas to the fictionalized world of their relationship in ways that make them vulnerable, but still very relatable.
Whether or not this show gets a second season order remains to be seen, but the low key charm of “Doll & Em” makes us hopeful for more. The finale does leave the door open for more from Dolly and Emily — from Wells and Mortimer — with their portrait of middle-age friendship that’s rare on the big or small screen. It’s rarer still to see one drawn with such sensitivity and finely tuned humor. [B]