“Sally4Ever,” on HBO, is a midlife-crisis sitcom intrigued by all that oozes. Nothing human is alien to it, not suppurating psychic wounds, and especially not bodily functions. It distills human nature to its coarse extremes. In a moment of disability farce, it dumps noisome gags about bathroom stalls; the menstrual cycle is also a key concern. Sally (Catherine Shepherd) is an Englishwoman with a timid manner, a dowdy style, a soft halo of Romanticism ringing her sad haircut, and a mother who goads her toward marriage with anxious reference to her ovulatory potential. “You’ve got a limited number of eggs,” Mum scolds, wishful that Sally will settle down with her live-in boyfriend of ten years, David (Alex Macqueen).
David is introduced slathering a tacky a-cappella treatment on George Michael’s “Faith,” and his flesh is as gross as anyone’s. The camera stands petrified by his toilette: his zesty dental flossing and dorky nasal dilators, the creams he gobs on his soft feet and disappointing pate. He’s the lead grotesque in a series created by Julia Davis, the British comedian responsible for comedies of bad manners including “Hunderby” and “Camping.” Her style always accommodates filth that builds from bathroom humor and bedroom slapstick. On “Sally4Ever,” her dynamics of shock and domestic disgust amount to a kind of kitchen-sink surrealism.
One day after work, David attempts to spice up his love life with Sally by approximating a burglar’s outfit and jumping her in the front hall. After she fights him off, he removes his balaclava to mewl that he meant no harm. “I’m just fed up with you saying I’m boring and predictable and my penis is too small,” he says. Later, after dinner, David drops to one knee, whence he badgers her with a blubbered proposal: “You’re not getting any younger. You’re not gonna meet anyone else!” Sally accepts, as if for the familiar and futile purpose of stemming his loss of dignity. At bedtime, David offers Sally his mother’s wedding dress, which he cherishes despite its stains. “Mum had quite an overactive gland,” David explains.
In the night, Sally slips out to meet Emma (Davis), with whom she had flirted in a moment of enchantment on the Tube. Emma is enticingly free and bold—a vital vision in a red leather jacket, with a touch of Madonna’s desperately sought Susan Thomas in her boho brazenness. She is quickly developed as a wicked cartoon in Davis’s tradition of stiletto floozies, addled sirens, and rancid prima donnas. (On HBO’s current remake of “Camping,” Juliette Lewis plays an American analogue of a typical Davis character; named Jandice, she supports herself by working as a d.j., a Reiki healer, a cheesemonger . . . “oh, and I’m a notary.” Emma is a brat, a leech, a shameless climber, an aimless grifter, a pathological liar, a probable narcissistic sociopath, a fantasy figure of immoral self-indulgence, and a lot of fun at parties. She has no boundaries, no morals, no shame, no sense. Sally invites Emma into her life, and Emma effects a home invasion.
The series is a showcase for Davis to contrive and perform misanthropic antics as Emma barges through encounters with Sally’s stodgy parents, David’s widowed mother, and other recipients of grave offense. Shepherd, playing the nominal lead, gives a tickling performance by supporting this comedy of rudeness with facial gestures that tread a line between discombobulated reaction shots and simply breaking character. Three episodes into this seven-part season, it remains unclear what all this horrible awkwardness and explosions of bowels add up to—how much art can be found in the squicky craft of an evil clown.
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