Friday, November 22, 2019

In the Era of Peak TV, Dollface is a Must-Watch [Contributor: Jenn]

When Disney+ was released, millennials everywhere dove head-first into nostalgia, rapidly consuming Disney Channel Original Movies and old Disney shows with fervor. I know, because I was one of those millennials. Then I quickly devoured new series like The Mandalorian. I essentially forgot that I owned Hulu and Netflix accounts for a few days, and only resurfaced to catch up on currently-airing series. But because Hulu is great at social media marketing, I kept seeing ads for their new series, Dollface. I honestly hadn’t even heard about it before an ad in my Instastory alerted me.

I resolved to watch the series, if only because it starred four criminally-underrated actresses, and was a show about women and female friendships. The end result? A 10-episode series that I absolutely adored. It’s got a few bumps and clichés along the way but overall, Dollface is a show that is quirky, fun, and utterly focused on what it looks like to have female friendships after college (hint: Sunday brunch makes a very, very fun appearance in the show).

Mild spoilers for the series to follow.

Let’s get the plot out of the way first: Jules (Kat Dennings) is a young woman who’s just been broken up with by her boyfriend of five years. Because she’s spent the last near-half-decade with one guy, Jules’ female friendships have been sorely neglected. So she vows to reconnect with the women she left behind, including her best friend from college, Madison (Brenda Song) and her other friends Stella (Shay Mitchell).

But it’s not easy for Jules to connect. She hasn’t really had female friendships in years, and while other women put them on hold for the short-term, Jules has apparently neglected her friends for a long time. Understandably, Madison isn’t keen on reconnecting with someone who abandoned their friendship in favor of a guy, but Stella is a little more accepting. Add to the mix the unlikely friendship Jules cultivates with a woman, Izzy, at work (Esther Povitsky) and you have a recipe for shenanigans.

Dollface’s primary charm is in its magical realism — when life is confusing or chaotic, Jules imagines her life in various scenarios. When she’s dumped, she boards an imaginary bus of sobbing women who all eventually arrive at a terminal and greet their female friends like they would if they’d returned from a long trip. Jules plays an imaginary game show in her head (“Should She Go Out?”), imagines a literal rift forming when Madison and Stella fight, and has an entire episode-long Wizard of Oz fantasy, which is so genius. The way she gains advice, primarily, is through conversing with a cat lady (Beth Grant) who tells her what she should do about her female friendships.

But there’s another charming layer of Dollface — the women themselves. Female friendships are complicated, especially when you get older. And while Ramona, the sister of Jules’ ex-boyfriend, tells the heroine that she should accept a dwindling group of female friends as she ages, it’s clear that the show (and Jules) don’t buy that. Ramona’s argument is that when you’re in your twenties, you need your female friends. Your squad, as it were. But when you settle into a relationship, it’s okay to let those friendships go. Ramona tells Jules about how she chose bridesmaids — but it’s not because she’s close to the women; most of them she hasn’t spoken to in over six months. She chose them because of how they’d look in her wedding party. Jules might have been fine with that life at the beginning of the series, but now that she’s reconnected with her friends, she can’t go back to that way of life.

The truth is, Jules found a deeper connection with her friends than she had earlier in life. Their college relationship was based on fun and seeing each other all the time. Now they’re older, trying to navigate life and expectations and work and their futures. There’s still drama and fighting and emotions because they’re human beings, but there’s something more powerful that connects them now.

Most of the first season is devoted to Jules learning how the world works when it comes to female friendships — and these women are hilarious as they teach her. Brenda Song is consistently underrated when it comes to comedy. There’s a way that she’s able to perfectly punctuate lines of dialogue with sarcasm that makes her so endearing. Madison is an interesting character, too, and I love that none of the women in the show are elevated as the “cool” or “flawless” one. Madison’s pride is a stumbling block. Izzy’s constant need for approval gets her into trouble (at least she’s self-aware of her codependency), and Stella’s tendency to numb or ignore her feelings causes issues.

Jules is the protagonist of the series and manages to transform pretty splendidly. She learns not just how to open up, but how to step outside of something that is comfortable and familiar and into the unknown. The season ends essentially with Jules standing up for herself — but most importantly, standing up for her friends. She doesn’t do everything in the series perfectly (she lies and tries to appease others rather than challenge them), but she grows. She learns how to become a better woman and a better friend. She stops being scared and starts actually living.

Kat Dennings, by the way, does a fabulous job at conveying Jules’ emotional journey. Not only is Kat just a hilarious actress, but also emotive (the endings of “Mama Bear” and “Feminist” prove that she can do a lot with small scenes). Something else I’m thankful for is that this show didn’t use Jules’ magical realism as a way to convince the audience that something was wrong with her, or use it as a problem-solving tool only. Jules’ imagination continues to run along even as she’s evolving and growing. It isn’t used as an escapist tool but rather as a way to process the world — and something super quirky too!

Madison, Stella, and Izzy get to grow a bit too. Shay Mitchell does an excellent job with dry humor, and that’s definitely Stella’s forte. But she also takes charge of her life and future, applying to business school because it’s something she wants. Everyone expects Stella to be the beautiful, fun party girl all the time. And Stella bitterly decides to act the way everyone sees her in one episode. But it’s really important not just to highlight the fact that Stella is beautiful and smart, but also ambitious. She’s a woman who seems, to outsiders, like she has no plan or purpose. But she cares about things and bettering herself.

Meanwhile, Madison undergoes her own little transformation too, learning how to trust people and show emotion. Madison’s so driven and career-centered that it can be hard for the audience to relate to the girl who seems to have it all. I’d liken Madison in Dollface to Ainsley in Four Weddings and a Funeral — both are gorgeous, fancy, self-made women but both are also people who are stubborn and prideful and can let that stand in the way of what they know they need to do, It definitely affects their friendships. But Brenda Song just does an excellent job of toeing the line between Madison’s tough, take-charge exterior and her vulnerability, which is why she is so compelling.

And then there’s Izzy, who’s so afraid of being excluded that she clings desperately to the people around her for validation. She’s also just weird and awkward sometimes and Esther Povitsky had already sold me in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and she sold me here. (Speaking of, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend alum Vella Lovell guest stars in the show as a coworker of Jules.) Dollface also boasts an array of guest stars including Malin Akerman (who plays Jules’ boss), Matthew Gray Gubler, Margot Robbie, and more.

So while the series toys with clichés about plot and character, and occasionally falls into stereotypical story traps, it does do a great job of portraying female relationships in a fresh, funny, whimsical way. And that’s really all I can ask for in a show.


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