Sally4Ever might be the funniest TV series of 2018.
I realize that’s a bold statement to make for any series, especially this early into its existence, but when it comes to the work of comedy writer/director/actress Julia Davis, it’s best not to bet against her. From Human Remains to Nighty Night to the original version of Camping, Davis’ approach to comedy—through the lens of humanity’s much less flattering sides—is always dreadfully funny. Just as It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s 13th season somehow ended with one of the most poignant, emotionally affecting sitcom moments of all time, Sally4Ever is a comedy that says nothing can ever truly be poignant, because all people are terrible. Every single one of them. (It’s a sentiment that means her comedy isn’t exactly for everyone.) Basically, it’s the opposite of The Good Place: Nothing’s sacred to Julia Davis, even when the characters she writes—especially the ones she plays, like Emma here—somehow think every dumb thing they say and do is.
Sally4Ever is an absurd comedy about a timid woman named Sally (Catherine Shepherd), who ends up ditching her boyfriend of 10 years, David (Alex Macqueen), for a new and exciting tryst with Davis’ Emma. Sally is the ultimate pushover, unable to say no (often choosing to lie instead), but once she first lays eyes on Emma (a singer who also fancies herself an actress), it’s the stuff on which rom-coms are built. It’s all downhill—or uphill, depending on whose perspective you take—from there, as their hook-up doesn’t lead to this new, dynamic force in Sally’s life enriching her situation or making her a bolder person. Instead, this story of girl-meets-girl—with Davis in the role of the manic pixie dream girl—quickly becomes a story of buyer’s remorse, as Emma’s free-spirited personality is pretty soon revealed to be that of a manipulative leech. So Sally simply goes from one toxic, parasitic relationship (with someone who’s the epitome of boring) to another (with someone who goes out of her way to proclaim she’s anything but boring). And now she has that whole inconvenience of coming out as a lesbian to deal with, an awakening that leads to the pilot’s very intense—among other messy things—sex scene, set to the other T’Pau song.
It’s much funnier than it sounds. In fact, the misery is kind of the point. Because Sally4Ever isn’t just a twisted romantic comedy: It’s a comedy about manipulation and the parasitic relationships people find themselves in, even when they can see the disaster unfolding right in front of their eyes. It’s a concept anyone familiar with Davis’ work will latch onto almost immediately, as it fits right into her habit of taking the worst aspects of any person and cranking them up to their most extreme. Emma hits the same sweet spot as her previous characters, like Nighty Night’s Jill and Camping’s Fay: Upsetting, charismatic (and magnetic) narcissists who go for exactly what and who they want, no matter what the cost. Emma is the type of character who considers herself a citizen of the world (when asked where she’s from, she gives a vague answer like “kind of all over the place”—she’s also “part-French”) and so very clearly lies about everything she can, even when she doesn’t have to or when it can easily be proven false.
Of course, Sally4Ever gives us enough of Sally’s life with David, pre-Emma, to know that the alternative is just a different kind of bad. While Sally may be the embodiment of drab, the series makes clear from moment one that David is too boring even for her. As a matter of fact, David manages to be boring, disgusting, and manipulative, to the point that it’s clear no woman should have to be punished by being with him for the rest of her life. (As petty as Emma is when she talks to Sally about him, Macqueen does make David come across as the embodiment of this line: “He makes me feel sick. Just looking at photos—I don’t know what it would be like to actually be around him.”) He sobs and whines his way through so many of his conversations with Sally (including his proposal), and again, it’s much funnier—because of how desperate it is, especially when Sally can barely muster an emotion for him other than polite disgust—than it sounds. In the pilot, his very ill-conceived idea to spice up their relationship is simultaneously one of the funniest and most disturbing moments of the episode. By the second episode, the world’s worst love triangle is in effect; and while the pilot is a very good set-up to get the audience acquainted with the world and to explain how Sally could get sucked into another terrible relationship so easily, the show really gets going once Sally is officially trapped in Emma’s free-spirited web.
When Macqueen and Davis play off each other—David uncomfortable with the whole unfortunate situation; Emma showing him nothing but absolute contempt—it’s like watching a game of comic chicken, and neither one flinches. Then again, every character on the show is a walking, talking red flag in some form or another. Even Sally, despite being too much of a pushover to put an end to the toxic relationships in her life, doesn’t even come across as put together. Her disaster of a relationship with Emma is even funnier because she clearly realizes it’s a disaster, and is still going with it anyway. As Sally tells her best friend about how she keeps drinking these smoothies Emma makes daily, despite the fact that they make her sick: “But I’m vomiting a lot less now, which is great.”
In general—and despite being the show’s namesake—Sally really doesn’t say all that much in the series, either because she doesn’t know what to say, or because another character simply speaks for her, or because another character decides to fill in the gaps of silence. But rather than Sally (and Shepherd’s performance) disappearing into Emma’s whirlwind, or the vortex of David’s negative charisma machine, it soon becomes clear that her reactions to everything around her speak louder than any words could. The biggest surprise about Sally4Ever is just how great Shepherd is: It’s an understated performance of the highest order. In fact, understated might be an understatement. Davis even mentioned in an interview that she cast Shepherd in the role because of how “understated and precise” she is as an actress, and that ends up making every already funny moment in the series even funnier. Sally almost is like a real person trapped in this world and just trying to play along, poorly. At times, Sally4Ever feels like an exercise in attempting to break Catherine Shepherd specifically; by the second episode, it’s impressive to witness Shepherd try to keep from corpsing in scenes where Emma and David one-up each other with exaggerated grief in order to guilt Sally into choosing one of them over the other.
The obvious word to describe Sally4Ever and Julia Davis’ sense of humor is “dark,” but it never reads as darkness just for the sake of it. Because, as twisted as the series is, it also does everything it does specifically for the big laugh. Sally4Ever never tries to be serious or unfunny, even with its focus on truly awful people. And it takes joy in discomfort and awkwardness, but just calling it “cringe humor” does it a disservice. Sally4Ever creates a sense of having to take a step back for a moment—after laughing at something as strangely specific as an instrumental “This Year’s Love; music cue seemingly out of nowhere—and simply ask yourself, “What exactly am I watching?” The answer is simple: possibly the funniest television series of 2018.
Sally4Ever premieres tonight at 10:30 p.m. on HBO.
Despite her mother’s wishes, LaToya Ferguson is a writer living in Los Angeles. If you want to talk The WB’s image campaigns circa 1999-2003, LaToya’s your girl. Her writing has been featured in The A.V. Club, Indiewire, Entertainment Weekly, Complex, Consequence of Sound, and Flavorwire, among other publications. You can find her tweets about TV shows, movies, and music you completely forgot about @lafergs.