If a reminder is needed that it’s often a bad idea to mix business with friendship, a new HBO cringe comedy, the British import “Doll & Em,” provides a laundry list of red flags.
Premiering Wednesday night at 10, the six-episode series, which will air in back-to- back half-hour installments for the next three weeks, stars Emily Mortimer (“The Newsroom,” “Shutter Island”) and her BFF Dolly Wells playing fictional versions of themselves. The show chronicles the predictable disintegration of the bond between Em, a famous actress, and Doll, who is portrayed as working as a waitress on the show, but in real life has several British film and TV credits to her name, including “Bridget Jones’s Diary.”
Doll comes to Los Angeles from London to heal her wounds in the wake of a bad breakup. Em is starting a new film project and asks Doll to work as her personal assistant during the shoot. “You don’t have to get me coffee,” Em insists at first, before explaining that if Doll did in fact ever happen to get her coffee it would need to be a “frothy latte” with three shots in a medium cup.
Things quickly go from uncomfortable to disastrous as the women try to negotiate the boundaries of their new relationship. Complicating matters is the fact that Em, away from her husband and kids, is feeling insecure about delivering a strong performance, while Doll is not only a hit with the crew and producer but also steals a crucial scene as an extra.
The pair, working in a “semi-improvised format,” nail certain aspects of lifelong friendship — the physical comfort, the shorthand — and clearly have a chemistry that translates to the screen. There are also interesting points to be made about the type of imbalance that is likely to pollute all friendships when one half of the duo is more prominent, regardless of the fields in which they toil. Doll delivers a wrenching, perhaps cathartic, monologue near the series’ end that expresses what so often goes unsaid in these situations.
“Doll & Em” runs into trouble, however, when the women say and do things that seem improbably tone-deaf, bordering on cruel, in a relationship purported to be as close as theirs. Yes, Mortimer and Wells are playing “character” versions of themselves, but would Doll really interrupt the shooting of the most important scene of Em’s film? After returning from a boring Hollywood party and discovering her best friend had been stranded outside her locked home all day, would Em really have such little sympathy for a shivering, hungry Doll?
There are definite laughs and tears to be wrung from “Doll & Em,” but the actresses’ own inherent likability and warmth toward each other, oddly enough work against the premise.
Adding to the strained credulity are a few cameos by actors playing hard-to-swallow versions of themselves, including Susan Sarandon as an insufferable mom.
With its half-hour format, “Doll & Em” is, ostensibly, a comedy. And though many of the situations are played for laughs, the show is on its strongest footing when it is played for the inherent drama of the friction in the two friends’ power dynamic.