‘Doll & Em,’ ‘Mistaken for Strangers,’ and the Rise of the Meta-Underdog


In this last decade we’ve seen recessions, an epidemic of unpaid internships, and doomsday prophecies for all liberal arts graduates; perhaps, for this reason, the bounty of underdog stories — stories that mine the processes that engender “failure” rather than fame — has surged. Whether it’s through the listless children of privilege who can’t seem to hold a job on Girls or the gals contentedly slumming it among friends in Broad City, or through those crushingly talented musicians lacking some chimeric idea of “itness” in Inside Llweyn Davis and 20 Feet From Stardom, non-aspirational narratives continue to infiltrate the cinematic and televisual zeitgeists. And, as many would agree, it’s damn refreshing.

For it’s often the case, either due to societal or internal blocks, that people’s full potential never becomes known or acknowledged by the masses — that, in some capacity, these folks remain professionally sedentary, never ascending to lead the tumultuous, high-stakes lives of the super-successful few. It’s why Sex and the City, with its braggadocious, ever killin’-it leading ladies seems like such a relic, wholly inapplicable to our times. And it may be why “We’ll never be royals/ It don’t run in our blood” is now emblazoned in the minds of billions.

I was therefore exceedingly fascinated by Doll and Em and Mistaken for Strangers, a meta-TV show and meta-documentary, respectively, that take this type of narrative to the next level. Both Doll and Strangers examine the relationships between people who’ve known each other since they were children; in both cases, one child has grown up to become famous and artistically fulfilled, while the other’s life, both professional and personal, has stagnated. Doll and Strangers both propose another factor that separates overachievers and underachievers: the luck, firstly, of having connections, and secondly, the audacity to milk those connections. Equally noteworthy is that they both serve as their own kick-starting enactments of incidental nepotistic milking for their lesser-known stars.

Doll and Em is a very fictionalized version of Dolly Wells and Emily Mortimer’s actual decade-spanning friendship. The premise goes as follows: Dolly, a waitress in London, goes through a messy breakup and calls her gal-pal Emily. Emily (Mortimer, aggrandized to a slightly higher star status) answers the phone while on a red carpet with Bradley Cooper. (Side note: while Cooper may seem a mere set decoration, it’s important to note this as a mini-testament to success brought about by “connections,” as this show’s peppering of celebrities, from John Cusack to Andy Garcia to Chloe Sevigny, often helps legitimize it as a TV vérité look at Hollywood). Em summons the distraught Doll to come to LA for an escape; once there, in an act of self-serving charity, she offers Dolly a role as her personal assistant. The two grow envenomed as they’re plunged into new roles as dominant and submissive, embodying the very divergence of their life paths. Until now, within their tight-knit friendship, they’d always been equals, but their new “work” relationship shatters the quaint notion that they ever were, shaking the dormant tectonic plates of resentment on which their relationship rests.

The meta-ness of the show, Wells and Mortimer claim, was a slow build of accidents and not-too-deliberate choices that conjoined to give people the misconception that their onscreen and offscreen friendships are parallel: initially, neither had wanted to act in their co-written show. Then, acknowledging that it’s always silly to decline a meaty role in Hollywood, they decided to reward themselves with the parts. They kept their own names, realizing that this way, it’d be easier to create a believable dynamic through improvisation. The show itself didn’t have a name yet, and the pilot submission HBO received was labeled, simply, with their own: Doll and Em. The network made the executive decision to title it thus, and the two ultimately embraced this meta-pigeonholing: in one of the last moments of the series, having reconciled their war-torn friendship, Mortimer suggests she and Wells write a TV show together.

Neither Mortimer nor Wells is a facsimile of their characters; Dolly Wells is actually a known comedian and television actor in England, and Mortimer said she “masochistically” exaggerated the stereotype of Hollywood actresses for her own role as “Em.” But the show’s impact on these actors’ realities uncomfortably mirrors the astute narrative of the show. While Em haughtily bustles about the set of the “female Godfather,” the less uptight, ego-free Doll becomes beloved by the crew (thereby hastily developing an ego), who seem to smell fear on Em. In an act of fast but somewhat uncalculated usurpation, Doll becomes an actor, a fresh face immediately adored by those she’s met in Hollywood because, paradoxically, she’s untarnished by Hollywood’s standards. Just as Doll is introduced to Hollywood within Doll and Em, the show introduces the real Dolly to American audiences via Emily Mortimer’s preexisting renown and connections to HBO.

The show’s analysis of envy, condescension and belittlement characterizes our current curiosity about the nature of failure, in an age when financial and artistic fulfillment are becoming less and less attainable. This unanswerable curiosity leaves us frightened and begging for some Social Darwinist explanation to mercilessly but concretely lay out the reasons why we’ll never “make it.” But the show gladly rejects concrete explanation: Doll is innately talented — she can cry on cue at the drop of a hat, while Em struggles — so we’re led to keep questioning the randomness by which the world has opened up to Em and, until now, been closed to Doll.

The concept of meta-doc Mistaken for Strangers is strikingly similar: Tom Berninger, the 30-something little brother of Matt Berninger (velvet-voiced lead singer of The National), lives in his parents’ Cincinnati garage, listening to metal, drawing, and making the occasional DIY horror film. Matt lures him out of the garage with an invitation to tour with the band. The two have never been especially close, and this extended vaycay might catalyze fraternal bonding. As with Doll and Em, there’s a laborious catch to the free trip: Tom will serve as an assistant stage manager. In an act of defiance traceable to ever-reactionary younger brotherhood, Tom shirks his duties to make this documentary. He proves an annoyance to the crew, the band, and especially his brother. But since he happens to be filming these moments of annoyance, we see that he’s deliberately curating them, trying to piece together the reasons he’s been rejected by society while his brother’s been idolized (I mean…sort of).

While making the documentary, he goes through assorted crises, not knowing what to do with the documentary: these crises themselves turn into the documentary, wherein we see the documentary itself being edited, at Matt Berninger’s house, with the help of Matt’s wife. Critics have deemed the film a genius modification to the rockumentary genre, but what’s tickled most of them is the difficulty they’ve had in determining the actual quality of Berninger’s filmmaking — and what he’ll go on to do. At one point, Berninger decides to ask his mother to weigh in on his comparative lack of success. It’s one of the movie’s most painfully honest moments: his mother points to one of his drawings — it’s a good drawing — and tells him she’s always thought he’s the most talented of her sons. Whether or not she’s embellishing for the sake of her downtrodden younger child, we cannot tell; the moment is, in fact, so honest because a mother’s words are so subjective. Yet that’s what we’re left with: one of the most subjective glances at the creation of the underdog we’ll ever see.

Like Dolly Wells’ character at the end of Doll and Em, Berninger is now pursuing acting (read Elisabeth Donnelly’s interview for more on this). The thematic similarities to Doll and Em are striking: without the famous point of comparison, neither Strangers nor Doll would exist. Their star is both vilified by virtue of being privileged and needed as the catalyzing force behind these two works. Will Dolly Wells (the character) and Tom Berninger (the person) be the next hot things in Hollywood? Or, oppressed by that irksome force neither work quite manages to pin down, will these two talented individuals, like so many inexplicable others, be sent back to obscurity?