'Dollface': TV Review

Great cast deserves more than this too-familiar material.

Hulu's new female friendship comedy gives Kat Dennings a welcome return to form, but can't measure up to 'Shrill' or 'PEN15.'

Hulu's new comedy Dollface seems to be going after a specialized demographic — namely, women in their twenties with perpetual social media access and an encyclopedic knowledge of current popular culture, who somehow don't watch enough TV to recognize how derivative Dollface is at every turn.

There are things to like about Dollface. Important things. It's a triumphant return to form for Kat Dennings after all of those years trapped under the broadcast hackery of CBS' 2 Broke Girls and an appealing showcase for the generally ill-used Brenda Song, the generally underrated Shay Mitchell and for exceptional scene-stealer Esther Povitsky. The entire cast, right down to a tremendous string of guest actors, is so great that the prevailing feelings watching the first season's 10 half-hour episodes are occasional mirth and consistent certainty that they could all be put to better use.

Dennings plays Jules, who does something nebulous and irrelevant in web design for Woöm, a Goop-esque female empowerment brand overseen by the Gwyneth-esque Celeste (Malin Akerman). As the Jordan Weiss-created series begins, Jules is being dumped by her boyfriend of five years, Jeremy (Connor Hines). Their apartment is really his apartment. Their social engagements and plans largely stem from him. Jules is surprised to discover how little in her life is actually hers, highlighted by lapsed friendships with college chums Madison (Song), nebulously involved in publicity, and Stella (Mitchell), nebulously unemployed. Jules struggles to carve out her own identity, as her friendship circle grows to include co-worker Izzy (Povitsky), so identity-starved herself that she's been pretending her name is "Allison" to share a name with two confident colleagues.

Adding flavor to this pursuit of independence — or at least a different kind of co-dependence — is Weiss' decision to capture Jules' moments of desperation in fantasy sequences, like when she departs her awkward breakup in a bus of sobbing newly singles driven by a woman with the head of a giant cat. The Cat Lady (voiced by Beth Grant) makes regular appearances among Jules' inconsistently depicted hallucinations, which will call to mind FX's Man Seeking Woman, except that FX comedy appears to have had a higher budget, a far greater latitude for whimsy and a more consistent application of the bit.

Nobody would ever accuse Dollface of copying or borrowing from a show as underviewed as Man Seeking Woman — and before you say, "But that was the male gaze and this is… not," MSW did some of its best episodes, and half of its final season, from the female perspective. But if you've seen both shows, the comparison is verging on unavoidable and only exposes how flimsy the Dollface fantasy sequences are and how rarely they add to the show's experience in terms of either understanding its main character or expanding its visual language.

They're mostly useful as a hook for describing the otherwise indistinctive show. Everything from the major episodic plotlines (the girls suggest that Jules needs a little casual sex, but she inevitably makes the fling into a relationship) to the littlest of gags (Gal pals obsess over The Bachelor! Gal pals go to the bathroom together!) feels recycled. Maybe we're just in a Golden Age of comedies about female friendship or maybe there have just been a handful of recent great examples, from Comedy Central's Broad City to Netflix's Tuca & Bertie to Hulu's very own PEN15 and Shrill, but Dollface is masquerading a lot of knockoff geegaws as boutique accessories and hoping its target audience skipped all of those shows to, instead, Instagram brunch.

The best thing I can say Dollface is doing is directly discussing the potential mixture of nourishment and toxicity that can be found in female friendship in your late twenties, which is to say that it takes the subtext of generally better shows and turns it into text as its impossibly attractive characters living in impossibly nice apartments make their way through impossibly scrubbed-clean parts of Los Angeles. Every possible rough edge of gender, sexuality, race and class has been sanded off of these characters and this story.

Yet Dollface stays consistently watchable and even its familiar punchlines often hit thanks to this cast. Dennings spent years having her unique sing-song deadpan rhythms blunted by the multicamera calcification of a successful CBS sitcom and after that unavoidable broadness, it's a treat to see how much she can do with a withering one-liner, a wordless sound or eye-roll. When she isn't being lazily utilized as a fetish object — I'm looking at you, Fox's Dads — Song has a razor-sharp comic precision honed over her years on the Disney Channel, which pairs well with Mitchell's unexpected silliness as she continues to prove, after last year's You, that she's the best of the Pretty Little Liars. As the painfully awkward friend prone to inappropriate non-sequiturs, Izzy is the character most prone to slipping into stereotypes, but Povitsky keeps her endearing and more grounded than she should be.

Also maintaining interest in Dollface is a strong rotation of guest actors, starting with Akerman's amusing Paltrow-trolling and going through the season's string of potential love interests, questionable boyfriends and bad dates played by the likes of Matthew Gray Gubler, Goran Visnjic and, memorably, Macaulay Culkin.

The elements are there for Dollface to become a much better show if it moves forward. There's lots of room to do something smarter and more imaginative within this structure and story. The cast is already at that next level, waiting for the series to catch up.

Cast: Kat Dennings, Brenda Song, Shay Mitchell, Esther Povitsky
Creator: Jordan Weiss
Premieres: Friday (Hulu)