Mischa Richter/HBO
Amy Wilkinson
March 19, 2014 AT 08:32 PM EDT

Real-life BFFs Emily Mortimer (Newsroom) and Dolly Wells (Bridget Jones’s Diary) write and star on Doll & Em (Wednesdays at 10 p.m.), HBO’s latest L.A. meta-comedy about a movie star (Mortimer) who hires her childhood pal (Wells) as an assistant. (Possible alternate title: Curb Your Enthusiasm, Ladies!) But once you clear the velvet rope, it’s apparent that Doll and Em is, at its heart, a portrait of female friendship rather than a Hollywood confidential. 

The comedy — which is partly improvised, but never reaches laugh-out-loud levels of funny — debuts with back-to-back episodes, and good thing, considering the premiere is a bit anemic. After the initial set-up (Doll breaks up with her boyfriend in England, hence the hop across the pond and her new responsibilities fetching coffee and yelling at the GPS), the episode’s main conflict revolves around Doll getting locked out of Em’s house — and who’s responsible for the mix-up. Already we see small fissures in the pair’s relationship, but their petty squabbling isn’t exactly scintillating stuff. 

The second episode, however, serves up some much-needed meat (soy protein?) with the duo attending a cast party hosted by a Hollywood bigwig. Guest turns by Susan Sarandon and Chloë Sevigny as heightened versions of themselves add hilarious authenticity, but the gristle here is the ladies’ first genuine (and kind of ugly) clash as they both vie for the affections of the fete’s host, Buddy (Jonathan Cake). After nearly 30 seasons of The Real World, you’d think everyone would know that a hot tub threesome never ends well… But these are the things we do to the ones we love, right? It’s not entirely clear what Doll and Em’s relationship has been like over the years, but mixing business with pleasure has added an uncomfortably adversarial aspect, shifting the power dynamic in Em’s favor and making Doll the unwittingly put-upon pal.  

Doll & Em lays bare the often uncomely and untidy aspects of lifelong bonds and does so in splashy (literally, the hot tub!) and smaller ways. In future episodes we find Doll stealing a bit of Em’s shine on the set of her movie — a fitting plot point as Doll is the more compelling, sympathetic, and just plain fun character opposite Emily Mortimer’s self-involved Em; the kind of loyal and endearing woman you’d want as your own BFF. B 

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