Hidden away in the turret of a remote lighthouse, hunched at a desk scarcely large enough for a single person, best friends Doll (Dolly Wells) and Em (Emily Mortimer) scrape together their first play in the course of a few long days. Again and again the wardrobe changes, the light transforms, the bodies slouch or stand or sway, but the basic composition remains the same; finally, the series’ title appears, as if printed on a sheet of paper. This is, in essence, the central thrust of “Doll & Em,” reduced to a brief montage. The second season of HBO’s under-appreciated gem peels back its layers of metafictional comedy until what’s left is a friendship as raw and real as any you’ll see on television.
Closing the distance between life and art, “Doll & Em,” created by real-life pals Wells and Mortimer, is at first blush a particularly delicate satire of the petty indignities of modern Hollywood. In the first season, Doll arrives in Los Angeles after a nasty breakup to spend a stint as Em’s personal assistant, only to find her friend’s fragile ego and her own blossoming ambition impossible to balance in the industry’s hothouse atmosphere. Witty, occasionally absurdist, run through with self-doubt, “Doll & Em” quickly established itself as a series of unexpected rhythms and surprising grace.
Written by Wells, Mortimer, and director Azazel Jacobs, the six new episodes channel the tension of the protagonists’ employer/employee relationship toward their off-Broadway collaboration, the semi-autobiographical “Joanne’s Gift,” and the result is at once an acerbic examination of the creative process and an earnest, even moving attempt to sift through all the detritus that accrues to any inseparable pair. “Doll & Em” beautifully balances the details of this friendship, between two testy artists constantly negotiating the border between personal and professional, and every friendship, in which the fusion of self and other sends up sparks—often of joy, occasionally of resentment.
This to-and-fro becomes the series’ defining feature, cavalier comments and perceived slights resolving into apologies, kind gestures, expressions of loyalty and love; “Doll & Em” constantly sneaks its topsy-turvy understanding of Platonic affection into moments of mordant humor and vice versa. When Em’s commitment to the play begins to waver—she’s been offered a part opposite Ewan McGregor in an artsy sci-fi project called “Space Pilgrim”—Doll lashes out and then bares her soul, confessing that she’s “a bit lost. ‘Cause I’m sort of with you, but not with you.” Em mumbles her assent and pours tea on her blanket. She’s already half-asleep.
As the rehearsals for “Joanne’s Gift” proceed, with Evan Rachel Wood as Doll and Olivia Wilde as Em, the broader comedy of backstage wheedling gradually narrows, and the brilliant near-slapstick of a disastrous dinner party becomes a searching portrait of the way friendship can be as profound as romantic love and sometimes as troublesome. Aided by Jacobs’ exquisite direction, wistfully circling Doll while she wonders at the scale of the theater or poking fun at Wilde’s intrusive Method with an image of her and Em in matching floral robes, the series is a model of efficiency. In 12 pithy episodes, “Doll & Em” arrives at a finer, far more thorough depiction of its protagonists’ terms of endearment than four seasons (and counting) of “Girls.”
Without ever bleeding over into the saccharine, or allowing its sense of irony to harden into an impregnable shell, “Doll & Em” gently brushes the dust off what Virginia Woolf called the “spider’s web” of fiction, “attached to life at all four corners,” conjuring the notion that the seemingly simple connection between two kindred spirits is in fact the product of inelegant, frustrating effort. This is, itself, a worthy subject for a television series.
In the end, the effect of layering one tiny moment atop another, again and again, is much greater than the sum of the parts. Circumstances may change, yet the basic composition of Doll and Em’s relationship remains the same: their symbiosis is a function of their complementary flaws as well as of their many merits, and the result is a wellspring of support that neither can quite live without. The superb “Doll & Em” delves into an aspect of friendship that other series tend to treat as a given, when anyone who’s found this sort of soulmate knows that maintaining such a bond is no mean feat. It’s hard work, but they make each other whole.
The second season of “Doll & Em” premieres Sunday, Sept. 13 at 10:40 p.m. on HBO.