'Sally4Ever': TV Review

Sally4Ever  Still 2 - Catherine Shepherd - HBO Publicity-H 2018
Courtesy of Sky/HBO
Awfully good.

Britain's Julia Davis, queen of creating awful characters and making them awfully funny, strikes again with her new HBO series.

Julia Davis finds humor by running a knife right through you while laughing, which makes her dark comedies not for those who like nice people and bright comedies. The darker the better for Davis, whose Nighty Night comedy from 2004 is one of the funniest and bleakest things you'll ever see and set a real high bar for the genre.

Davis is back again with the HBO and Sky co-production of Sally4Ever, a wonderfully sinister look at what happens when a mostly unhappy person in a mostly unhappy life opens the door to a manic pixie dream girl who also happens to be toxically awful and hard to shake upon further inspection.

Sally (Catherine Shepherd) has been dating her ultra-vanilla, unsexy and boring boyfriend David (Alex Macqueen) for 10 years and the time has drained her face of all happiness, her body of much joy or emotion. She goes to work at a boring job, where the best thing in her previous life was a fling with a co-worker.

Enter Emma (Davis), still getting it done as a sexy actress and singer and whatever else she says she's doing that no one is aware of, still unrelentingly in pursuit of something better, some slice of fame, some incremental improvement in her life, no matter how obvious it is to viewers that she's a little past her prime, a lot desperate and possibly unhinged.

Emma is a lesbian (at least for the most part unless there's some advantage to be had with, say, a male director), and Sally first lays eyes on her one day heading to work on the subway. Sally is pretty but, at the moment with life dragging her down, she's just pretty plain. Emma exudes confidence and sexuality. Outwardly it's a chance encounter but the more we know of Emma, the more we understand that it's like a special ops mission where she sees vulnerability and goes in strong.

Written, directed and, of course, starring Davis, Sally4Ever kicks off with the first of many hilarious scene-setters that depict just how much blood has run out of Sally's life. She's watching Alex — bald, nebbishy, exuding desperation and an utter lack of coolness — singing an a cappella version of George Michael's "Faith" with a motley collection of adult male crooners while her parents, beside her in the audience, think it's amazing. Sally's face — and Shepherd uses it so perfectly throughout the three episodes sent for review — screams "kill me now."

When next we see Emma, she's handing out flyers to a gig she's doing (the less said about it the better, for comic effect) at a nightclub, and hands one to Sally. One of the things about the kind of comedy Davis does (and that the Brits do particularly well) is she makes awful people weirdly likable and even when the viciousness and cruelty ultimately reveal themselves, there's still something fearlessly straightforward about the character and the comedy, an admirable all-in quality that refuses to let up.

And as we get scene after scene of how weak and nauseating David is as a boyfriend, it cements just how miserable Sally is as she settles for their life together. That's the crack in the door that Emma needs and when Sally shows up at the club to see her (while David sleeps at home), it's basically all over. Emma's voracious sexuality intrigues Sally, who can't shake the wild night.

Meanwhile, David tries to spice up their sex life and reverse his reputation and "surprises" Sally when she gets home for work in, well, not an ideal way (just imagining Davis dreaming up that scene in her head creates additional laughter since the default for her always seems to be: "How can I make this as awful as possible?").

Still intrigued about her meeting in the club with Emma, Sally looks to repeat it soon after when David is on a business trip.

Well, maybe it's too much to say that Sally is the driver of the encounter, since life mostly happens to her. It's how she got in her dilemma with David in the first place — by settling for what's offered. It's really Emma who wants to insert herself (and other things, like her big toe) into Sally and Sally's world. Their initial sex scene is as hilarious as it is ludicrous, with Davis going well over the top to depict how life-changing the lust is.

Once Emma is in her life, Sally has a hard time getting her out, even when things begin to go sideways (as in, Emma is most likely a sociopath — and despite the great sex, that might not be a great thing). The big driver in Sally4Ever is that we absolutely believe how beaten down by life Sally is based on how splendidly Shepherd sells that, with her lips almost always crisply level, not pushed into a smile or frown. It's also a very British trait to suffer something rather than complain, to do anything other than call attention to the disaster unfolding in front of you. Meanwhile Davis is a comic artist at selling her allure as real and simultaneously desperate. And she's fearless at making Emma both attractive and horrible, a giant red flag of hot-mess narcissism to any level-headed person, but total shiny-object catnip to someone deep in the grays like Sally.

Davis is always doing something audacious with her comedy and it works because she doesn't ever blink or water it down, or laden it with sympathy. She's the master of how to do unlikable characters. For example, one character in Sally4Ever is Eleanor (Felicity Montagu), Sally's wheelchair-using co-worker, who is just relentlessly off-putting. Davis excels at awful people, of course, without the burden of having to justify it. That can be a rough recipe even for people who like, say, the wince-inducing appeal of Curb Your Enthusiasm, which, in comparison to anything Davis does, comes off like the animated kids' show Arthur.

It's a different world here, folks. HBO tried to remake her series Camping (which will air next to Sally4Ever) and it's an unmitigated disaster of failed American interpretation.

Always go with the original, but go in with your eyes wide open about what you're going to get.

Cast: Julia Davis, Catherine Shepherd, Alex Macqueen, Felicity Montagu, Julian Barratt, Steve Oram, Joanna Scanlan, Mark Gatiss

Created, written and directed by: Julia Davis

Premieres Sunday, 10:30 p.m., HBO