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HBO’s Doll & Em is smart but lightweight

'Doll & Em' premieres tonight on HBO.

Dolly Wells and Emily Mortimer (from left) co-created, co-wrote and star in ‘Doll & Em,’ a six-part miniseries premiering tonight on HBO.


Doll & Em, a six-part comedy premiering tonight on HBO, clearly is a labor of love for real-life best friends Emily Mortimer (The Newsroom) and Dolly Wells, the British actresses who co-created and co-wrote the project, as well as starring as “themselves.”
For the rest of us, the miniseries is pretty lightweight, although it explores an interesting question: What happens when someone who fits perfectly into one compartment of your life suddenly intrudes on another, very different part?
Tonight’s premiere opens with Emily attending the Independent Spirit Awards with Bradley Cooper, where she is interrupted by a frantic phone call from London. Dolly, her lifelong best friend, is going to pieces over the implosion of her latest relationship.
A supportive Emily immediately flies Dolly to Los Angeles, where Emily is about to begin work on a high-profile new movie project. Strictly to help her friend, Emily also proposes that Dolly take a temporary job as her assistant, to earn a little money and also be able to spend time with Emily on the set.
It’s a well-intentioned yet disastrous move, because it blurs the relationship lines between them. Dolly is Emily’s best pal and houseguest, yet she’s also her employee. Emily wants to give her grieving chum the attention she so desperately needs and expects, but she’s also about to tackle the most challenging role of her professional career, and she doesn’t need any distractions.
And Dolly is an epic distraction. She’s happy that her gig as Emily’s assistant allows her to tag along to a Hollywood party where Susan Sarandon is among the guests, yet becomes hurt and resentful when she is shunted into a room with a child guest while the A-listers socialize elsewhere. Emily also feels uncomfortable asking Dolly to perform even the most undemanding task, which, God knows, the self-absorbed Dolly would never think about tackling unbidden just because her friend needs help.
Worse, Dolly demonstrates an appalling lack of discretion, blurting out confidences and embarrassing Emily in front of her professional peers.
Over the course of its six half-hour episodes (HBO is airing two per week, over three weeks), Doll & Em charts how the chemistry between the two women starts to change as they try to adjust to their new personal “roles” in each other’s lives. This isn’t really a laugh-out-loud comedy, but rather a character study that arouses sighs and smiles of rueful recognition.
After being stuck in a shrill, poorly written role on HBO’s The Newsroom for two seasons, Mortimer is delightful and engaging playing a fairly sane, non-neurotic woman, although her Emily is subject to the insecurities any actress in Hollywood over 40 would be prone to. When the friendship between the two women ultimately fractures, it’s mostly Dolly’s fault, not because Emily hasn’t tried her best to be supportive.
Wells, who probably will be unfamiliar to most American viewers, has a tougher job of it, because ultimately Dolly is selfish and unsympathetic. This may, in fact, be this actress’s wheelhouse: The only other thing I’ve seen Wells in is the hilarious Britcom Spy (currently streaming on Hulu Plus), in which she starred as the sour, perpetually disapproving ex-wife of Darren Boyd’s title character.
In addition to Sarandon, Chloe Sevigny, John Cusack and Andy Garcia also turn up as themselves, and actor Allesandro Nivola (American Hustle), who is married to Mortimer, serves as producer of Doll & Em.
Chloe Sevigny (right) guest stars with Emily Mortimer in 'Doll & Em,' premiering tonight on HBO.

Chloe Sevigny (right) guest stars with Emily Mortimer in ‘Doll & Em,’ premiering tonight on HBO.

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ALBERT TSAI, NATALIE MORALES, GIANNA LEPERA, RYAN SCOTT LEE, MALIN AKERMAN, BRADLEY WHITFORD, MARCIA GAY HARDEN, MICHAELA WATKINS
Trophy Wife, a very promising new sitcom premiering tonight on ABC, is blessed with a strong cast and some sharp writing, but saddled with arguably the worst, most misleading title of the season (more about the latter below).
Malin Akerman (The Comeback) stars as Kate, a beautiful girl who loves nothing more than partying nightly with her best friend, Meg (Natalie Morales, The Middleman) – until one karaoke night when Kate literally falls into the arms of Pete (Bradley Whitford, The West Wing), a slightly older environmental lawyer.
Romance ensues, and Kate soon becomes Pete’s wife – more specifically, his third wife, a position that comes with more baggage than a cruise ship. Pete’s first ex-wife, Diane (Marcia Gay Harden), is a brilliant medical doctor who regards the younger Kate with withering dismissal, an attitude immediately adopted by her teenage daughter, Hillary (Bailee Madison), although Hillary’s twin brother, Warren (Ryan Lee), is instantly smitten by his new stepmom. In fact, Warren’s school essays start to take on a disconcertingly erotic tone and feature a female figure who seems vaguely … familiar.
Pete’s second ex-wife, Jackie (Saturday Night Live alumna Michaela Watkins), is a neurotic, New Age-y mess and has a hyper-intelligent young adopted Asian son (scene-stealer Albert Tsai) who is completely unintimidated by the grown-ups around him.
Tonight’s pilot follows Kate as she tries to establish a meaningful place for herself in Pete’s crowded life, which means trying to make some connection with stepdaughter Hillary, who isn’t having any of it. The episode gives most of the cast members a chance to shine, none more brightly than Akerman, a starlet-pretty actress who also comes across as smart, funny, warm and accessible. Whitford, always a joy to watch, shows us how much Pete genuinely adores Kate, although his character seems to spend much of his screen time reacting to his extended family members (here’s hoping he becomes less passive in future episodes).
As the ex-wives, Harden, an Oscar winner who elevates any scene just by walking into it, makes Diane a formidable adversary for Kate while never crossing the line into stale bitchiness, but frankly I had a very hard time understanding why Peter ever would have married someone as scatterbrained as Watkins’ Jackie (the writers need to fix that, and soon).
In other words, from a creative standpoint, Trophy Wife is a likable enough show, but there’s a very real chance some viewers will never sample it because of its terrible title. Kate isn’t a trophy wife in any sense of the phrase. Pete cherishes everything about her, and she’s a strong, intelligent woman who actively engages with everyone else in his life, instead of just standing around looking decorative. Calling this show Trophy Wife sets up expectations of a sitcom that is far less appealing and engaging than this one is. And if you don’t think a misleading title can hobble a show’s chances, just talk to the creative team behind Cougar Town.
Trophy Wife already has something of an uphill struggle to find an audience in its insanely competitive Tuesday time period, opposite such established hits as The Voice, NCIS: LA, surging sophomore sitcom The Mindy Project and the long-running CW cult hit Supernatural. It doesn’t help that the lead-in to Trophy Wife is one of ABC’s feeblest new shows.
That would be The Goldbergs. Actually, I don’t want to be too hard on this doomed sitcom, because I suspect a lot of love went into it behind the scenes. Its creator, Adam F. Goldberg, based the show on his own upbringing back in the 1980s, when he grew up in a fractious but loving family headed by a blustering dad (Jeff Garlin, Curb Your Enthusiasm) who can’t articulate his love for his three kids and a doting mom (the glorious Wendi McLendon-Covey, Bridesmaids) whose love knows no bounds – or, unfortunately for her kids, boundaries.
The obvious template for this show is the Emmy-winning 1988-93 sitcom The Wonder Years. What Goldberg has overlooked, alas, is that we can’t all be the Arnolds from that cherished hit of yesteryear. There isn’t much that’s truly original or noteworthy about the Goldberg family except that most of them SCREAM A LOT FOR NO GOOD REASON. In fact, if the Nielsen ratings were measured in decibels, The Goldbergs probably would be the top-ranked show of the 2013-14 TV season.
Everything else, though, feels fairly generic, including George Segal’s dotty old grandpa character. How generic? The pilot revolves heavily around the father figure’s reluctance to teach his teenage son (Troy Gentile) how to drive. Coincidentally, Fox has a midseason comedy, Surviving Jack, waiting in the wings about an intimidating dad (Chris Meloni, in that case) who has a hard time expressing love to his kids. The pilot for that show has a pivotal scene in which Meloni’s character teaches his teenage son to drive. Did I mention that Surviving Jack is set in a recent past decade (the ‘90s) and based on the true-life teen experiences of its creator?
I suspect The Goldbergs tested through the roof with relatives of Adam F. Goldberg, but there’s not much here for the rest of us. There’s a good chance this show will be gone by Thanksgiving. I’m just hoping it doesn’t take Trophy Wife down with it.
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