Fans of HBO’s hard-hitting dark comedies have an exciting surprise coming this Sunday at 10:30pm E/P. The premiere of a new series from one of the UK’s brightest comedy stars, Julia Davis starts this week.
You don’t know her yet…but you will. With Sally4Ever comes a brilliant, hilarious dirty, sexy, cringy, laugh out loud funny, dark, dark, dark comedy that’s full of surprises that I’m doing my best not to give away. There are two types of dark comedies proliferating the networks these days: dark shows that are wryly funny, and hilariously twisted fun but shocking series that aren’t afraid to draw humor from taboo places (think Danny McBride’s Vice Principals). Sally4Ever belongs to the latter category and its full of everything you want from that underpopulated genre. And nobody delivers better than HBO when it comes to creating comedy for adults.
And it’s smart too, but the messages of Sally4Ever are only there if you’re looking for them. There are themes of neediness, and loneliness, paradoxes of the merits of power vs passivity, and safety vs passion, and some of the negotiations women navigate in trying to find the happy place somewhere in all of that muck. But this is not a preachy show. In fact, when I talked with series creator, director, EP and star Julia Davis, she was clear that she wasn’t creating a message series. Any lessons you’ll find there were not purposeful. As so often happens with great art and comedic art in particular, the truth just happens to be there whether you were thinking about it or not. “If I’m really truthful, it’s mostly about being funny and wanting to tell a story and wanting to, underneath the comedy, kind of explore the sadness and the loneliness and all of these different thing. I have no idea if I’m sending out the right messages or quite what I’m doing, if I’m really honest. Mostly the way I write tends to be just, it’s very unconscious. So I don’t sort of sit down and think, “I’ve got this message I must get across.” It’s more like, “I’ve got this story about these people that I really want to share in a way.”
David, Sally and Emma (Alex Macqueen, Catherine Shepherd, Julia Davis)The basic premise of the show centers on Sally, an unhappy woman played by Catherine Shepherd, who is stuck in a bad relationship, and a very grey occupational slot. Her whole life is grey in fact. She has a castrating mother, a passive father, and an over-eager to please boyfriend, David (brought to life perfectly by Alex Macqueen) who has some of the most cringe-inducing mannerisms ever performed on television. Trapped in a loveless and lifeless existence, Sally meets Emma (Davis), her polar opposite in every way, and everything changes very quickly.
It’s a British show, but it’s made for America; Davis’s first show for us. She’s not new to creating brilliant comedy. She has a string of successful projects behind her, we just haven’t been able to see any of them here in the US. And this show is perfect not only for an American audience, but especially for an HBO audience, something she knew when she partnered with the cable network. “I’ve always wanted to work with HBO because kind of everything I’ve watched tends to be on HBO,” she told me. “But initially, I was developing the show with Sky Atlantic and then spoke to them about whether could we approach HBO and talk about it with them as well. And so that’s sort of how it came about, but yeah, I definitely think I felt that with the area it should be.”
The initial idea for the series was pretty nonspecific. Like many HBO shows it’s not the premise or the plot but the characters and the world they live in that make this show work so well (remember how you thought Six Feet Under sounded as a premise? exactly).
“We wanted to improvise a short film idea and on the day, we were like, “Well we need to come up with some ideas.” And so we had it that Catherine, Sally basically, was living in a house. I moved in. Turns out I’m gay and I’m into her.”
She described it almost as a sketch idea from the beginning and in developing the characters she realized she had something bigger on her hands.
“Watching it back, I started to think, “Oh god. There’s so many places this could go,” I felt. I didn’t necessarily think about it being a lesbian relationship or anything particularly. It was just a relationship and it was seeing a woman trapped in one situation, moving to be trapped in another situation, and then, well how is she going to move on with her life?”
The scenes with David are just masterfully uncomfortable. It’s hard to believe we haven’t seen Macqueen in these roles here in the US before, and almost impossible to picture him being anything but unbearable. Davis says he’s just so lovely and funny in real life; someone you would want to hang around with, so even she was a bit surprised to see how effective the scenes with David were on-screen. “I have such an affection for him and for that character, but obviously I can see how uncomfortable that is. We’ve had screenings and then you go, “Oh my god. What is this?” Because when you’re making it, you’re so in this kind of make-believe world. You don’t feel the full impact of what it’s like to land that on an audience really.”
The series begins with Sally who is quite tired of the neediness that the people in her life bring to the table but she is unable to say no to them until she meets Emma who is wild, passionate and uninhibited. She does what she wants and with that comes chaos and conflict. Davis says in her own life she identifies more with the Sally character than the Emma character, which helped her to develop Emma’s arc. “Not in work, thankfully, but in life, I do find it hard to say no in lots of situations and there’s still … there’s a lot of stuff I still struggle with personally in standing up for myself properly. So I like to explore that I think.”
Neediness remains a theme throughout, but its not a theme that Davis was conscious of creating the characters. “I don’t know how conscious I was of that, to be honest. But now you say it, yeah. I guess it was all about everybody wanting something and often everybody wanting someone that didn’t want them,” she said adding, “But, anyway, I don’t want to give the ending away, but it’s almost a happy ending.”
Some of the series boldest and fall out funniest moments come from the sex scenes, which are unlike anything we’ve seen on television. They’re pretty explicit for a comedy series (thank you HBO!), beautifully choreographed, and yes, they’re both intimate and comedic, erotic and thrilling, yet also hilarious without being goofy. Anyone who heard the news that HBO was going to start changing their sex scenes forever by hiring an “intimacy coordinator” on set has nothing to worry about. Sally4Ever proves that while the process may have changed, its invisible to the viewer. The sex scenes were shot with stand ins, and handled with respect behind the scenes, but they’re powerful in front of the camera. Davis explained how they were handled. “Basically we were doing any bits you can see our faces and upper bodies and then the rest was stand-ins, but that was all good. I mean I was nervous having written out those montages on paper to actually come to meeting these women and sitting down with them and talking through, “This is what I want to do. It’s funny. Are you comfortable to do this?” But mostly, it was just about that. It was about we have to all be comfortable to do this and fun doing this. I’m hopeful that that’s the experience they had. I think it was because I would never make them do anything they didn’t feel comfortable doing.”
The scenes are so unique and so original that I had to ask Davis where she drew her inspiration for them. She said that she really didn’t imitate or draw from anything but her own creativity. “I mean I watched the film Blue Is the Warmest Colour, which I loved in a very serious way, but I saw in it a lot of comic potential I think. And then, I think that combined with, I don’t know, things people have told me over the years, little stories. Things that kind of go into your brain and then they sort of reappear later.”
After seeing only three episodes, I can’t wait to see what’s next for these characters in the seven episode arc of Sally4Ever. You get the sense that anything can happen in this world. Everything’s in play, everything’s in motion, and I’m already hoping that Davis will follow in the footsteps of Danny McBride in creating two seasons; finite enough to ensure the concept doesn’t get played out, but open enough to give us more of Sally’s world after season one wraps. Davis says the idea of a second season isn’t in the works yet, but also not off the table. “Initially it was written as a seven episode thing because I tend to sort of think in that way partly because here we frequently don’t always keep series going. But, I think there are a lot of places it could go. Yeah. I don’t know. I’m not quite sure yet what’s going to happen.”
Sally4Ever is slated to premiere on HBO Sunday, November 11th at 10:30PM ET/PT.