This week sees the launch of the second series of Doll & Em on Sky Atlantic. Written by and starring Dolly Wells & Emily Mortimer, the six part series follows a hugely acclaimed first run in February last year.
This series, like the first before it, features as a number of Hollywood stars in guest roles including Evan Rachel Wood, Olivia Wilde, Harvey Weinstein and Ewan McGregor, and focuses on a fictionalised version of the lifelong friends as they attempt to write and direct their own off-Broadway show.
With the first episode airing on Wednesday 3rd June, TVO took a look at the first two episodes of the new run, to see if the magic of Series One has been recaptured.
Warning: mild spoilers for Series 2, and big spoilers for Series 1 ahoy…
When it arrived, stealthily tucked away on Sky Living last year, the first series of Doll & Em could quite easily have sunk without trace. Here were two British actresses: life-long friends but never-before collaborators, poking holes in the industry which made their names via a fictionalised account of the trials and tribulations of an alternate universe version of the pair.
And perhaps, if Doll & Em had aired a few years earlier, that would have been that. Yet this delightfully charming series, so beautifully shot by co-writer and director Azazel Jacobs, so delicately balanced and subtly nuanced, was determined to live a life well beyond its original transmission. We are living in the Now TV generation, with television on demand long after broadcast picking up curious viewers who in turn, recommend the show to other curious souls, and so on, and so on.
In that respect, it was only natural that the story of Doll & Em, though perfectly contained in those six 24-minute segments, would be allowed to continue. Put simply: it was far too much fun spending time with Dolly Wells and Emily Mortimer to not do it all over again.
But where to take their alter-egos now? The first series saw a down-on-her-luck Doll become Em’s personal assistant on a big budget movie project, but her semi-accidental rise to prominence broke their friendship in half, and it took a canal-side catchup in Camden, at one point interrupted by Noel Fielding, to reunite the pair.
The answer lay in the final moments of the first series, when the two friends discussed writing a play together. As the second series begins, that’s exactly what they do – hiring a lighthouse to get some ‘you-and-me’ time. Before long, the play is written, but Doll & Em are not the charming, sophisticated pair of friendly souls that Wells & Mortimer are in real life. The bumble through an awkward meeting with Harvey Weinstein, and are forced to turn to their old flame Buddy (the spot on Jonathan Cake of Desperate Housewives fame) for help getting the project of the ground.
As casting begins in earnest, two factors threaten the play, and as a result, their friendship. Em is offered a role in sci-fi blockbuster Space Pilgrim, which leads to them pulling out of starring in the play as well as directing and writing it, much to Doll’s chagrin. And the two women put their personality flaws on show for all to see: Doll’s perfectionism and bluntness almost costing them their leading ladies (cameos from Olivia Wilde and Evan Rachel Wood), and Em’s inability to balance the various people in her life with any degree of respect starting to pull apart the very fabric of her existence.
If all of this sounds very po-faced and serious: it isn’t. There’s some delightfully silly moments on offer which counterbalance the dramatic material, from Doll & Em spewing forth a bizarre anecdote about a fly, to the results of Doll’s attempts at buying a mirror from a ‘step-sale’.
And through it all, the pair remain utterly enchanting to watch, even when they are playing through a series of events so awkward even Alan Partridge would have seen sense by now. Em’s phone-juggling, trying to cook a meal, keep her hungry child quiet, guide a lost Doll through New York and also handle a press interview, would seem wholly unsympathetic in the hands of a lesser actress, and Mortimer knocks it out of the park.
So too, does Wells when she opens up to her friend in the second episode, telling her how living in the former au-pair’s quarters makes her feel “with you but not with you”. Doll’s realisation that Em has fallen asleep and missed what was clearly a hard thing to admit is beautifully underplayed, and feels all the more believable as a result.
And these awkward moments make the periods when the two friends are at their happiest all the more charming. It could be sickening watching them muck about on a stage, or hiding under the table, but it works because their genuine camaraderie shines through.
Granted, the episodes are not perfect. There’s a couple of really obviously signposted comedy set-ups sprinkled throughout – including an early gag with a lighthouse switch that feels so old fashioned it might actually have fallen out of an old Dad’s Army script by mistake. But when when the odd pay-off can be seen coming a mile-off, if the ride towards them is this much fun, who really cares?
Indeed, much like the first series, Doll & Em series two feels like it could quite easily have been edited together into a feature length piece and held its own in independent cinemas across the world. To break off after less than an hour in their company felt strange – like leaving a party too soon, and knowing the fun is going to carry on well into the night whilst you’re tucked up in bed wishing you’d stayed there til the bitter end. Sure, the little morsels each week are nevertheless tantalising enough drip-feeds to make you come back for more, but this is perhaps a show for the box-set age: one for marathon viewers to stumble upon, discover, and gorge their way through in the years to come.
There’s a curious moment towards the end of the second episode, Olivia Wilde observes Em and summarises: “It’s like you don’t give a shit.” The evidence to the contrary is littered across these episodes, and whilst at this point, the series may be saying nothing the first run hadn’t already made clear, that message of friendship against all the odds is one that holds up to a spot of repetition. It’s great to have the two of them back, and two episodes in, there’s a lot more lined up for Doll & Em yet.
Doll & Em Series 2 begins Wednesday 3rd June at 10pm on Sky Atlantic HD. The first series is available via Sky Go and Now TV, and on dvd via Australian import in The Velvet Onion Amazon UK Store now.