The Comeback is unique in the lineup of One-Season Wonders, Weirdos, And Wannabes in that it’s the only series that has survived past its initial single-season run. This November, the HBO comedy is returning for six additional episodes, but after nine years off the air, the “second season” of this faux reality show is really more of an event miniseries capitalizing on the first season’s status as a contemporary cult classic. Considering the show’s conceit as the big television return of a forgotten sitcom star, this unexpected revival after almost a decade away is a delightfully meta development, finally giving Lisa Kudrow the renewal that her on-screen persona Valerie Cherish received in the show’s first season finale.
The Comeback marks a major turning point for American comedy television in the 21st century, prophesying the rise of documentary-style single-cam sitcoms, personality-driven reality shows, and in-depth character studies like Louie, Girls, Veep, and Enlightened. These types of shows existed before The Comeback, but combining them all into one complex, intelligent, and utterly hilarious series gives Kudrow’s comedy an especially visionary feel. Co-created by Sex And The City producer Michael Patrick King, the show offers a scathing satire of the entertainment industry, and it has only become more relevant as the television landscape morphs into the exaggerated, absurd environment of this fictional reality.
For lovers of network TV (particularly three-camera sitcoms), The Comeback presents one of the best looks at what goes into creating a new series, detailing the behind-the-scenes growing pains of a developing project and offering insight into the process of filming and promoting a network show. Most TV viewers don’t know what it’s like to sit in a live studio audience for a scripted TV show and will likely never watch a network’s upfront presentation, but The Comeback shines a light on these aspects of the entertainment industry (and many more) as it chronicles Valerie’s time on the set of her horrible new sitcom Room And Bored.
Valerie Cherish has her own reality show, but she isn’t a fan of reality TV. She doesn’t watch shows like The Real World or The Amazing Race, so she doesn’t understand the basic principles of the genre. This ignorance is highlighted in “Valerie Demands Dignity,” an episode that forces Valerie to learn how much work goes into making a captivating reality TV experience. While cross-promoting a new reality show starring The Amazing Race’s Charla Baklayan-Faddoul, Valerie realizes that she needs to take a bigger role in fabricating drama for her series, but she’s not brave enough to take matters into her own hands like Charla. Valerie has a very specific idea of what she wants this show to be, one that won’t make for good reality TV. Luckily for her, the editors have no intention of making the in-show Comeback about one woman’s “journey back to herself,” and the warped reality presented in the on-air footage ends up kick-starting Valerie’s career by showing the things she doesn’t want broadcast.
An interview with Michael Patrick King and Lisa Kudrow in the fall 2010 issue of Esopus includes a picture of their original pitch notes for the series (initially titled Raw Footage), which reveals The Comeback’s creators were on the right track from the very start, detailing how the show will juggle three different views of “reality” and listing the character flaws that make Valerie a captivating tragicomic character. The format of The Comeback does change from the original pitch, with the creative team scrapping the idea to have each episode end with an edited cut of the raw footage from that chapter. Actual scenes from the in-show Comeback aren’t shown until the finale, a wise decision that invites audience participation by leaving the network’s manipulation a mystery.
The color bars and beep at the start of each episode are a reminder to the viewer that this isn’t the final product, and when a clip from the edited footage is shown, it provides a formula viewers can use to theorize how the rest of the in-show Comeback unfolds. Knowing Valerie is going to be painted as the raging diva to Paulie G.’s sweet, innocent writer—likely because of legal interference on Paulie G.’s part—adds another layer to the viewing experience as the audience is given a new clue regarding how the narrative will ultimately be framed.
The Comeback explores different aspect of Valerie’s life through her relationships with five key characters: her husband Mark Berman (Damian Young), best friend and hair stylist Mickey Deane (Robert Michael Morris), costar Juna Millken (Malin Åkerman), Room And Bored writer Paulie G. (Lance Barber), and The Comeback producer Jane (Laura Silverman). Valerie’s marriage is her connection to a domestic life outside of showbiz, an existence that consists of living off her lawyer husband’s salary (plus some money from real estate investments) and being a mother to a bratty teenage stepdaughter. It can be assumed that Valerie’s primary career since the conclusion of her first sitcom, I’m It!, has been as a homemaker, but that doesn’t give her the adoration she needs to feel validated.
That validation comes from Mickey, who represents Valerie’s bond with her fans, a group composed primarily of middle-age white gay men who fell in love with her campy turn in a shitty network comedy. Mickey is the support system that keeps Valerie going; Mark is certainly supportive, but he’s not invested in Valerie the way Mickey is. Valerie getting a regular sitcom gig means a union job for Mickey, which means income and health insurance. Mark boosts his wife’s self-esteem because he knows it will make her happy, but Mickey is genuinely enthusiastic about everything Valerie does because he has a serious stake in her success.
One of the show’s most brilliant moves is the strong bond between Valerie and Juna, the physical personification of Val’s “It Girl” past. Åkerman brings a bashful charm to Juna that makes the character immensely likable, and it’s easy to forgive her when she screws up, because she’s one of the few people who truly respects Valerie as a performer. Juna used to stay up late to watch I’m It! when she was 9 years old, a fact that is repeated with the intent of making Valerie feel old, but also shows just how much Juna admires her costar. Besides Mickey, Valerie doesn’t have very many friends, yet it’s important to show Valerie getting along with others so that she’s not presented as a completely abrasive character. While Valerie is certainly using Juna’s success to bolster her own career, she also has legitimately valuable advice to give her costar, who is eager to learn from one of her childhood idols.
Valerie’s last two key personal relationships are reflections of her feelings toward her two respective shows. Her interactions with Paulie G. embody all the humiliation of the Room And Bored experience, and eventually Valerie reaches her breaking point with the show and it’s co-creator. The other Room And Bored creator, Tom Peterman (Robert Bagnell), also plays a significant role, but Paulie G. is the real menace to Valerie when she’s at work. Lance Barber’s performance as Paulie G. seethes hatred toward Valerie, and whenever he knows he’s on camera, there’s a visible sense of uncomfortable restraint in his behavior. He wants to tell Valerie exactly what he thinks of her, but he can’t because she has a camera crew recording her every interaction.
The most important person in Valerie’s life over the course of The Comeback is Jane, the little-seen producer who follows Valerie all day. Jane symbolizes Valerie’s relationship with the camera; even when Jane isn’t around, Valerie refers to her producer when the cameras catch something she doesn’t want the world to see. Like the cameras, Jane catches the true reality of Valerie’s life before the content gets edited for maximum entertainment value, but she’s not a completely objective observer.
Jane is also the real-world Comeback audience, watching the raw footage of Valerie’s struggle, having emotional reactions to what she sees, and building up sympathy as she spends more time with the actress. Jane isn’t supposed to get actively involved with what is happening in front of the camera, but she begins to interfere more heavily as Valerie’s situation worsens. When a drunken Valerie wants to call Paulie G. and express her true feelings to him, Jane grabs Valerie’s phone and dials the number to make sure the event actually happens. Moments like the drunken call could be seen as a producer taking advantage of an opportunity to build drama on her show, but Laura Silverman’s performance captures the affection Jane has developed for Valerie. Jane’s frustration regarding Valerie’s misunderstanding of what filming a reality show entails quickly turns into pity for this woman who can’t stop performing because she’s obsessed with maintaining a specific image.
That drunken phone call is motivated by an earlier conversation Valerie has with her friend Donna, who has a new outlook on life after surviving cancer. “You have to stop worrying so much about what other people think,” Donna says. “You keep looking at the camera, trying to control how this is all coming across. You can’t control life, Val. Hell, you can’t even control what chair you get by the pool. You gotta love yourself. Warts and all.” Donna and Jane both know that the real magic will happen when Valerie is emotionally honest in front of the camera, and surely enough, the breakout moment of Valerie’s in-show Comeback comes when she finally lets herself act on all the bottled-up rage she has toward Paulie G. While dressed as a giant cupcake, Valerie punches Paulie G. in the stomach, summoning streams of vomit from both parties. The double-vomit makes Valerie’s show an instant sensation, leading to a second memorable Leno appearance for the actress and a second-season pick-up for The Comeback after just one episode.
Kudrow gives the performance of her career on this series, combining the sitcom savvy she developed on Friends with the bolder comic skills she honed as a member of The Groundlings to create a multidimensional character onscreen while also plotting Valerie’s story throughout the season. Valerie Cherish is Kudrow’s outlet for expressing her frustrations with the entertainment industry, and she brings incredible passion and commitment to her character, finding a way to convey a huge range of emotions while playing someone who is trying to keep the world from seeing any vulnerability. Valerie’s facial expressions and body language often betray the words she’s saying to expose her true feelings, as exemplified in a painful scene where Valerie watches Paulie G. simulate sex with a male writer pretending to be her. Pain and embarrassment radiate from her in that moment, and the visible hurt in Kudrow’s performance garners a lot of sympathy for the character.
Valerie is clueless, selfish, and often obnoxious, but she also has a lot of positive traits: She cares deeply for her husband and wants to be a good stepmother to Franchesca (Vanessa Marano). She’s dedicated to her craft, and despite her delusions, she actually has a solid idea of sitcom dynamics. After Room And Board has its production halted for retooling, Valerie becomes an essential figure in easing tensions between the cast and the writers, a rare victory for the character that dramatically improves her relationship with her four younger costars.
In an interview discussing her Groundlings training, Kudrow talks about why improvisational skills are incredibly valuable to an actor. “You have to really listen,” Kudrow says, “and really respond to what’s been said.” Valerie desperately needs some Groundlings classes because she’s always in her head rather than paying attention to what’s happening around her. She constantly walks away in the middle of conversations to pursue her own agenda, usually when the other person is opening up in a meaningful way, and that inattentive behavior has a direct impact on her acting.
Valerie isn’t given good material on Room And Bored, but Aunt Sassy’s lines are even worse when paired with the actress’ stiff, tired delivery. Because she’s so concerned with her image, Valerie rehearses her minimal number of lines until she’s beaten the tiny bit of funny out of them, and when she performs on set, she skips past the reacting part of acting and delivers the lines exactly how they were rehearsed. Two of The Comeback’s funniest scenes show Valerie rehearsing bits while stationary cameras record the repetition, and there’s an increasing sense of desperation from Kudrow that makes these sequences funnier as they go on.
Valerie is not a strong actress, but you have to admire her commitment. When she asks Tom and Paulie G. for background information on Aunt Sassy, Valerie is gauging how much work the writers have actually done with the character, but she’s also gathering the tools she needs to give Aunt Sassy more substance. Her Room And Bored character is essentially just redheaded irritation in a pastel running suit, and Valerie knows that she can do better than that. But can she? The sole clip shown from I’m It! is one of the show’s biggest moments, and it’s a nonsensical scene featuring two hammy actors with little chemistry. Some acting classes would do Valerie a lot of good, but after being on a sitcom for four seasons, she thinks she has the talent and reputation to get any job if she works hard enough for it.
The Comeback delves deep into how tough Hollywood is for middle-age women, and that harsh reality likely factored into the show’s early cancellation. In 2005, HBO already had two series about the entertainment industry in its lineup—Curb Your Enthusiasm and Entourage—but those shows had what The Comeback didn’t: a male central character. Hollywood is still dominated by men, and it’s a tough uphill battle for women hoping to receive the same treatment as their male counterparts.
Actresses have to deal with unrealistic beauty standards and a limited selection of roles, which become sparser as a woman ages. When Valerie runs into Marilu Henner and Kim Fields at the Room And Bored auditions, she wonders why they even have to “come back.” Where did they go that they need to return? But they didn’t leave. They were abandoned. If actors can’t find a way to hold on to fame, it will run off and find someone new.
Lisa Kudrow tried her hardest to hold on to the forward career momentum granted to her by 10 seasons on a hugely successful network sitcom, developing 13 outstanding episodes of premium cable comedy and airing them just one year after the finale of her previous sitcom. She made sure her Comeback happened before people started wondering what happened to the kooky blonde from Friends, but she was also a woman in her 40s in Hollywood, meaning that her show would have to over-perform if it was going to stay afloat. Entertainment spotlighting female characters is still viewed as a gamble in many ways, so there’s more pressure to succeed if a project focuses on a woman’s story. If a show like The Comeback doesn’t immediately find an audience, it’s easier to dismiss it as something the general viewership isn’t interested in and cancel it after one season.
The HBO environment is considerably different now than it was nine years ago, and it’s entirely possible that the revival of The Comeback could lead to even bigger things for the series. Valerie Cherish has a large gay following (one of the many ways reality ended up imitating art after this show’s conclusion), and bringing back the series would help boost the network’s credibility with LGBTQ audiences, which is on the upswing thanks to Looking. The Comeback has become a reflection of the modern TV landscape rather than a foreboding omen of its future, and the industry developments of the last nine years give the show’s creators a wealth of material to explore in the revival. It’s the perfect time for Valerie Cherish’s second Comeback, and her return can’t come soon enough.
Wonder, weirdo, or wannabe: Wonder