The second-season premiere of HBO’s resurrected reality mockumentary The Comeback finds attention-starved actress Valerie Cherish, as ever, achieving new heights of self-aggrandizement.
“Reality TV has had quite the evolution,” says Valerie (Lisa Kudrow) in a talking-head shot. “It’s a different reality, and I should know because I was there at the beginning with The Comeback. Back then it was just me and people eating bugs on Survivor. This is entertainment? Well as it turns out, yes. Yes it is. I was right.” On its face, the statement is indistinguishable from the deluded rambling Valerie did back in 2005, when The Comeback bowed its little-watched first season. The difference is, this time the self-reflexive praise is well-earned.
Of the show’s many oddities, the oddest thing about The Comeback is that it was aired and canceled prior to the debuts of The Hills, Keeping Up With The Kardashians, and The Real Housewives Of Orange County. “An idea ahead of its time” is usually an abstract compliment, but it was literal in the case of The Comeback, which came and went before the seeds of the reality formats it skews so deftly—celebrity slices-of-life and catfights-in-couture—had begun to sprout.
Because The Comeback was so far in front of the curve, it’s able to return with a second season steeped in the current zeitgeist despite nine years in exile. The premiere, written by Kudrow and co-creator Michael Patrick King, fits seamlessly with the first season’s finale and makes only oblique references to how much time has passed in the narrative. It’s been enough time for Valerie to revert to being a Hollywood underdog following the fleeting success of the title show-within-a-show, but she somehow returns with less dignity than before.
Valerie was a captive of her first reality show, which was a condition attached to an offer to appear as Aunt Sassy on cheesy sitcom Room And Bored, the other meta-show nestled in The Comeback’s narrative tesseract. But in season two, the initial “raw footage” the audience sees has been commissioned by Valerie as she prepares a sizzle reel in the hopes of landing the same type of C-list reality show she once balked at. It’s classic Valerie, whose need for approval is so all-consuming she’ll literally do anything to be famous. As if to prove her lack of boundaries, Valerie agrees to a new reality/scripted twofer, this time with HBO documenting Valerie’s reunion with her Room And Bored nemesis, Paulie G.
Season two’s show-in-production is Seeing Red, a dark, pay-cable dramedy created by Paulie G. (Lance Barber) and starring Seth Rogan (playing himself) as a barely fictionalized Paulie spiraling into heroin addiction while working with Valerie on Room And Bored. The set-up is a masterstroke, allowing The Comeback to lampoon the genre, which Valerie describes as “comedy without the laughs.” But most often, the show is mocking Valerie, firing indignities at her as rapidly as its tone shifts from funny-sad to purely sad and back again. Shockingly, The Comeback manages to be even more hostile to its main character than it was before.
Kudrow’s performance is still breathtaking and vital, and it remains a mystery how she’s able to play Valerie as the world’s least endearing human but still win the audience’s respect. Valerie is either despised, tolerated, or ignored by basically everyone except her hairdresser and best friend, Mickey (Robert Michael Morris), and mensch husband, Mark (Damian Young). Juna (Malin Akerman) was Val’s co-star on Room And Bored, but now barely has time to chat with Val, having reached megastar status. Valerie’s life can be tough to watch, as she bounces between being loathsome and being pathetic while the story pelts her with slights. Sometimes Val’s humiliation looks like just deserts, while other times—as when she’s forced to pantomime a blowjob—it’s brutally sad.
The sad moments show the depth of The Comeback’s prescience, which not only predated most iconic reality shows, but also most iconic cable dramedies like the one it’s mocking with Seeing Red. The Comeback was a dramedy—a comedy without the laughs—before Girls, Nurse Jackie, or Weeds. And its cringe-worthiness is far above those shows’ due to its mockumentary format, which lends immediacy and sets expectations for sitcom rhythms that never materialize. The Comeback is hilarious in bursts, but season two goes to such dark places, at times it doesn’t resemble mockumentary as much as found-footage horror. The show now requires a tolerance for tonal fluctuations violent enough to scare off some season-one devotees.
Put simply, The Comeback is the same as it ever was, and more highly concentrated. It still out-metas anything else on television. The performances remain stellar all around, including Barber, Morris, and Laura Silverman as Jane, the crafty producer on Valerie’s reality show. The Hollywood satire is spot-on, as always, flicking at such nuances as the prickly relationship between network publicists and personal publicists. Most of all, the show never lets up on Valerie, and the eight-episode season is past its midpoint before she starts seeing returns from trading her dignity. As a result, at its bleakest points, The Comeback can be as alienating and esoteric now as it was when it got canceled nine years ago.
It makes perfect sense for HBO to revive The Comeback just as it was. Reviving a cult favorite for a limited-run event is the kind of good-will gesture powerful brands are built on, and Valerie’s return will certainly burnish HBO’s reputation for daring programming. The Comeback is polarizing and pitch-black, then as now, and its receptive audience will be include die-hard viewers as well as those who admire its meticulous execution, but can’t bear to watch Valerie sink so low.