As cringe comedies go, HBO’s newest series, Sally4Ever, is utterly devoted to the cringe part. The brainchild of creator, writer, and star Julia Davis — who also created the British version of HBO’s Camping, which was adapted by Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner — the seven-part series bills itself as an “exploration of love, sex, and obsession,” an interesting premise and one with some validity to it as its main character, Sally (Catherine Shepherd), finds herself at a crossroads of sorts, ending a long-term relationship with the same man for a new love affair with the mercurial Emma (Davis). And while that conceit provides the series the necessary narrative framework, there isn’t a whole lot of exploration going on. Instead Sally4Ever is mostly interested in providing awful people with as many opportunities as possible to behave terribly in order to get what they want.
Sally4Ever seems intent to give the phrase “your mileage may vary” a reason to exist. Rest assured, your mileage will begin varying from the first episode, which details the unfulfilling life of Sally, a marketing exec who has spent the last 10 years of her life in a relationship with David (Alex Macqueen), a man so pitifully ineffectual his life seems to revolve around the application of lotion to his head and feet, and loudly aspirating a cup of tea before bedtime. Initially it seems as though David is just a little socially awkward, a well-intentioned person with more than a few peculiarities surrounding his personality. That doesn’t last long, however, as the series wastes no time establishing what a grotesque human being David is, taking him well past the point of no return with a horrific marriage proposal in which he openly weeps and begs and tells Sally, “You’re not getting any younger. You’re not going to meet anyone else.”
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Sally4Ever is, if nothing else, committed to the idea that, in order to make the audience as uncomfortable as possible, it must leave the notion of comedy behind and become a full-blown horror show. There’s something admirable in that, admittedly. That a comedy would abandon its pursuit of actual laughs in favor of leaving the audience emotionally tapped out in just 30 minutes time. If you thought the characters in Camping (either version) were a lot to handle, well, you haven’t seen anything yet.
To Davis’s credit and the credit of the series’ cast, there is very little interest in having the audience empathize with any of the characters. They are, by and large, one-dimensional emotional monsters. The exception, of course, being Sally, who is, either by virtue of her status as a doormat or simply just plain old bad luck (her parents are just as bad as those she has chose to surround herself with) seemingly destined to live out her life fulfilling the needs of those closest to her. Emma’s arrival, then, appears poised to give Sally the spark and liberation she’s been craving for the last decade or more, but, as you have by now no doubt guessed, this new woman is as much of an emotional parasite as David or anyone else on the show. While that is a solid premise, the series' early going isn’t terribly as interested in exploring what this new experience means to Sally and how it affects her awareness of herself as it is in simply watching her endure one horrific scenario after the next.
The premiere moves swiftly through the getting-to-know-you phase, establishing who Sally is in a variety of situations: her home life, her job, and her uncomfortable dinners with her parents. And with equal alacrity, it introduces Emma, moving well past the point of harmless flirting into an explicit sexual encounter that’s crosscut with shots of David flossing his teeth and applying lotion to his bald scalp. It’s as over the top as anything this series has to offer (which is saying a lot) and coarse enough to make John Waters blush. Is it funny? Well, again, your mileage may vary.
Of the three episodes made available in advance of the HBO premiere, the third sees the series move in search of laughs that go beyond an attempt to make you squirm. It comes at just the right time, too, as the second episode takes the cringe-worthiness of the premiere up several notches, starting with an exasperating car ride to David’s family home following a personal tragedy. In the car, David and Emma actively compete for Sally’s attention, which sees them devolve into such an epic pair of groveling, selfish miscreants that the series proudly draws the audience’s awareness to the fact that Shepherd can barely keep a straight face and is repeatedly on the verge of breaking character. It’s both a testament to the praiseworthy commitment Davis and Macqueen have to their respective roles and an effort to say, “see, someone is having a good time, so maybe you should too.”
Sally4Ever is commendable for its dedication to its own uncomfortable, sometimes cruel sense of humor, and for the equally dedicated performances of its cast. That’s especially true for Davis, who, as both its creator and ostensible star, goes all out to embody the admirably unpleasant essence of the series. Your mileage on Sally4Ever may well vary, but at least the series knows exactly what it is and is unafraid to repeatedly demonstrate that fact.
Sally4Ever continues next Sunday @10:30pm on HBO.