Review: HBO's 'The Comeback' is as mortifying as ever 9 years later
There are TV shows I race through because I can't wait to see what happens next, and TV shows I pause frequently, either because I want to savor the experience or because I would really rather be doing anything else. And then there is "The Comeback," whose episodes take me twice as long to watch as anything else, good or bad, because I have to stop the action every few minutes just so I can clear my head, take a walk in nature, call my wife and do other feel-good activities in the hopes that when I press play, the latest mortification facing Lisa Kudrow's Valerie Cherish will have magically gone away.
The mortification never goes away. Ever.
"The Comeback" first aired on HBO back in 2005, during a fallow period when the channel kept trying ideas that didn't quite click — many of them about life in the entertainment industry. (In the same year that "The Comeback" debuted, HBO also gave us "Extras" and "Unscripted.") Co-created by "Sex and the City" boss Michael Patrick King and Kudrow, the show — in which middling '90s sitcom actress Valerie simultaneously joins the cast of terrible new sitcom "Room & Bored" and becomes the subject of a reality show about her return from obscurity — was perhaps ahead of its time in depicting reality television as a mechanism for the fame-hungry to achieve and maintain their celebrity at any cost.
But it was very much of its time — a period that had already given us "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and both versions of "The Office" (not to mention "Extras," which wasn't very good in the year it was a channel-mate with "The Comeback") — in embracing the comedy of discomfort, where the chief emotion generated isn't the release of laughter, but the pain of cringing as the hero or heroine suffers one humiliation after another. Reviews were mixed — though the critics who loved it would spend years after speaking of it in hushed, reverent tones — and HBO cut bait. King would go off to make two "Sex and the City" movies and the heinous "2 Broke Girls," and Kudrow would do other projects(*), but they always wanted to continue Valerie's story. And starting Sunday night at 10, HBO will let them.
(*) One of them, "Web Therapy" (co-created by Kudrow and her "Comeback" co-star Dan Bucatinsky), is still around, and puts Kudrow in rare company as an actor to be simultaneously working for Showtime and HBO. (Liev Schreiber, with "Ray Donovan" and his HBO Sports narration work, and Bobby Cannavale, who did "Nurse Jackie" and "Boardwalk Empire" in the same year, are two others.)
The new "Comeback" — presented as an eight-episode miniseries, though all parties are allowing for the possibility of more down the road — finds Valerie even more desperate to regain the spotlight than she was in the original. She's a decade older in a business that had little use for someone her age when last we saw her, "Room & Bored" is long gone and rightfully forgotten, and an attempt to join Bravo's "Real Housewives" franchise failed because Valerie didn't understand how scripted these shows really are. Her most visible recent work: a hair dye infomercial. (In a nice touch, she's chyroned as "Valerie Cherish, Television Star/Actress," because it's important to distinguish herself from the Bethenny Frankels and Lisa Vanderpumps, even as she's eager to join them.)
Trying to recapture the brief notoriety the original "Comeback" gave her — only with full control this time — she hires a crew of film school wannabes to document her life (each episode is, again, presented as raw documentary footage), and is horrified to learn that monstrous "Room & Bored" creator Paulie G. (Lance Barber) is producing an HBO series, "Seeing Red," inspired by their working relationship. Charging into HBO's offices to protest the project, which she rightly assumes will be a vicious takedown of her, Valerie instead finds herself auditioning to play the fictionalized "Mallory" and can't resist taking the job. Sure, she may wind up as the villain, but she'll have a show on HBO, right?
There are meta layers within layers here (it's almost disappointing HBO's current executives don't play themselves), but the end result is a sequel that feels very true to the spirit and style of the original — which will make it heaven to those who have been quoting Valerie's "Room & Bored" catchphrase "I don't want to see that!" all these years, and an ordeal to those who quickly ran from all the uncomfortableness.
I fall somewhere in between those two groups. I had little patience for the show back in '05, even as I admired the utter commitment of King and Kudrow to their bleak satirical vision and to Valerie's constant stumbles. The new series is no more pleasant a viewing experience, but in some ways it's an even more impressive achievement from the duo. As both a character study and an unflinching look at the way show business chews up women like Valerie and spits them out, it's terrific. It's easy to understand why Kudrow has hung onto this character (originally developed for a series of sketches when she was in the Groundlings) for so long, because Valerie allows her to go to places — painful, powerful places — as an actress that she's otherwise rarely gotten to in her career. Phoebe Buffay made her rich and famous, and she was a wonderful comic creation, but Valerie Cherish lets Kudrow sink so much deeper into the role and show just how versatile she's always been. (One of the more rewarding touches of the new season is the way it lets her show that Valerie is also much more talented than she's ever been given credit for — or that maybe even she's realized. She wants this life far more than is healthy, but she's also really good at it when given the chance.)
My problem then as now, though, is that "The Comeback" is constructed as a comedy of discomfort, only it's severely lacking in the comedy part.
The social compact we make with shows like this one, like "Curb" and "Larry Sanders" and "Freaks and Geeks" ("Freaks" alum Seth Rogen plays himself here, cast as the Paulie G. figure in "Seeing Red"), is that they will be funny enough, and often enough, to reward us for the suffering we endure along with the characters. Larry David makes a complete ass of himself every week, but his embarrassment inevitably leads to a giant comic payoff. Valerie's humiliations, on the other hand, are only in service of more humiliations, and there are long stretches of each episode where I'm not sure I could even identify what's meant to be the joke, unless the sheer level of awkwardness is the joke. It's just one dehumanizing moment after the next, with Valerie usually oblivious about what's about to happen to her until it's too late. And while her narcissism and craving for celebrity aren't the most appealing of traits, she's not presented as an awful person — her biggest sin tends to be forgetting the names of people on the crew — so there's no satisfaction from her relentless victimization. (When David Brent suffered on the UK "Office," he was a jerk in an unfair position of power getting his comeuppance; Valerie's only power is over people who like her and can't help her in this area, like her husband Mark and hairstylist Mickey.)
Both this show and "Sex and the City" (whose serious parts have aged much better than its humor) suggest King has a lot of skill as a dramatist. And I suppose I should be grateful he steers away from the comedy stylings of "2 Broke Girls" — aka racial stereotypes and single-entendres for their own sake — but "The Comeback" doesn't offer nearly enough funny to be worth going through Valerie's misery with her.
One of the upcoming episodes (I've seen five) revolves around a New York Times reporter who visits the "Seeing Red" set and calls Valerie's performance "brave." Valerie is convinced the reporter's using code for "willing to look unattractive on camera," while others suggest she's being straightforward in praising the unflinching nature of Valerie's acting.
That second interpretation applies not only to Kudrow's own performance, but to "The Comeback" as a whole. But in any era, I wish Kudrow and King could stand to be a little less brave — or find a way to punch up the laughter enough to compensate. In the show's actual state, I fear it may take me until well into 2015 before I can get all the way through this new season.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com