Valerie Cherish is oblivious. Unless something directly concerns her, she’s not paying very much attention to it, and if something concerns her in a negative way, she rationalizes in a way that gives it a positive spin that directly competes with reality. She’s just been cast in a role on an HBO show, a role clearly based on her real-life persona and being written by one of her worst professional enemies, but all that matters is that she’s back on TV, and on HBO no less. This is prestige television. That adjective blinds her to the facts she already knows about the role, despite the protestations of her husband, Mark, who is far more aware of what his wife is heading into.
Valerie knows that Mallory Church is based on her. She read the Seeing Red script and saw the similarities immediately, but because HBO has explicitly told her that she’s not playing herself, Valerie is able to put distance between her and Mallory in her head. That’s just part of the problem, though. Valerie hasn’t allowed herself to fully remember the torture that was her last experience with Paulie G., because if she did, that might compromise her hold on to the most important role of her career. And this is an important role. After nine years in a professional downward spiral, Seeing Red is her chance to show everyone that she’s still here, that she’s still got it, and she won’t let her personal feelings put that at risk. It’s easier to just put those thoughts out of her head; be oblivious to the potential dangers and charge forward with her typical overbearing enthusiasm.
Valerie isn’t just oblivious about her immediate situation; she’s also oblivious about the larger entertainment industry. In the opening scene showing Valerie filming her latest vlog in the bathroom, she has a conversation with Mark that reveals the extent of her knowledge regarding current day HBO. She assumes Mad Men is on HBO because the characters can smoke, then corrects herself with another wrong claim when she remembers it’s actually on A&E. She does know about Game Of Thrones, but only in the context that it’s a show Mark likes to fall asleep to.
When Valerie goes to HBO for a meeting to discuss how she can fold the filming being done for her “pilot presentation” into the network’s plan for Seeing Red, we learn the extent of her knowledge of HBO programming. Not surprisingly, it’s largely limited to the shows that put HBO on the map—Sex And The City and The Sopranos—and Girls, a show she’s heard about by definitely never seen. (She says she can’t wait for it, suggesting that she doesn’t know it’s been on the air for three seasons.)
The scene in the HBO hallway is a great meta moment, exploring how The Comeback as an HBO series compares to the shows that have surrounded it in history, but also drawing connections between Valerie and Lisa Kudrow’s own experience when she came to HBO following the conclusion of her immensely popular network sitcom. It’s easy to see Valerie Cherish obsessing over Sex And The City when it first debuted because it could have been an early stepping stone for her into this world of prestige television, allowing her to stay grounded in her comic roots while exploring the glamorous, provocative landscape of premium cable.
That’s what the first season of The Comeback allowed Kudrow to do, although that series was considerably less glamorous than Sex And The City. It wasn’t the success Kudrow wanted it to be, but it kept her in the cultural consciousness, gathering a loyal fanbase as more people came around to discovering her one season wonder. Kudrow has had a very healthy career following The Comeback’s first season, and no doubt the experience she had on this show gave her the know-how to be a part of projects like Web Therapy and the TLC series Who Do You Think You Are?, which she serves as a producer on.
Valerie is oblivious, but that’s why she needs people like Mickey Deane, Mark Berman, and Jane Benson in her life. Mickey is the most constant presence, there to correct Valerie’s incorrect pop culture references, help her remember the names of the people she meets, and in this week’s episode, serve as the only connection Valerie has to her old The Comeback producer, Jane. Valerie doesn’t even know Jane’s last name, let alone her current home address, but Mickey has kept in touch with Jane via his Christmas newsletter, and his most recent one wasn’t sent back so the address he has on file has to still be the right one.
Robert Michael Morris has outstanding chemistry with Lisa Kudrow, and there’s a real sense of history and affection between the two characters. That’s one of the things that makes The Comeback such a captivating show; there’s an immense depth to the relationships, and those give the show its heart. And because the show has been off the air for so long, that time has brought even more dimensions to Valerie’s interactions with those around her.
Valerie doesn’t have many friends and her relationship with Mark isn’t as strong as it used to be, so she’s had to rely more on Mickey for sympathy and support, and you can tell he’s been there whenever she needs him. Morris’ performance is brimming with optimism, and he’s always on Val’s side. When she’s disgusted with the script for Seeing Red, he’s disgusted with the script for Seeing Red. When she’s excited that she got the Mallory Church role, he’s excited that she got the Mallory Church role. And he stays by Valerie even when she hurts him, like when she takes away his Golden Globes ticket so that Jane and a cameraman can follow her and Mark at the ceremony.
Compare that to Mark’s reaction, which instantly objects to the whole idea. That’s because he’s the voice of reason. He’s the person that is there to remind Valerie of past mistakes, from the emotional repercussions of working with Paulie G. to the physical damage done when Valerie has tried to alter her appearance in the past. After meeting with HBO executives and hearing that she’s one of the few actresses that still looks “real,” Valerie panics and immediately calls her plastic surgeon, despite the fact that the last time she got fillers, her entire face puffed up like she’d been attacked by a swarm of bees. Mark remembers this, and holds his cell phone photo up for the cameras so the audience can understand why this is a bad idea.
In the lengthy Buzzfeed piece I mentioned in last week’s review, Lisa Kudrow discusses her anxiety regarding this plot point, because she knows a Valerie-type person in the real world would have had work done on her face, but doesn’t want to go through that herself. This is the kind of development a show about a male middle-aged celebrity doesn’t need to worry about, but it becomes a major storytelling hurdle when the star is a middle-aged female. Plastic surgery for female stars is the norm, because once their age starts to show, the roles become more limited. But if the cosmetic changes go too far, these women are ridiculed by the same public that has set the unrealistic standards of beauty that push them to alter their natural appearance. (For an example, look no further than the reactions to Renee Zellweger’s red carpet appearance at Elle magazine’s Women In Hollywood awards.) The show leaps over the plastic surgery hurdle by simply stating that Valerie has a negative reaction to the process. She’s tried it, but it does more harm than good.
Mark is there to make sure Valerie remembers this as temptation draws her in, and the temptation is strong. Not only is she going to be back on television under HD cameras, but she’s also been invited to the Golden Globes by HBO. Her profile is rising, and she wants to make sure she looks fresh and relevant, but instead of thinking about the easy fixes (hair and wardrobe), her mind is on cosmetic surgery. The last time Valerie went more modern for a red carpet, she ended up wearing her designer’s dress backward, so she sticks to something that she can’t fuck up because it looks like a relic from 1989. The dress is incredibly dated, but that’s not such a big deal because Valerie and Mark aren’t seated in the actual theater. They’re relegated to a viewing suite full of strangers, potential Russian whores, and Paulie G.
Setting up tension for next week’s first day on-set for Seeing Red, the Golden Globes provides the first real glimpse of Paulie G. and Valerie’s new relationship this season, and it’s not off to a great start. When he sees Jane and the camera crew, he asks, “You’re not doing that to me again?”, which suggests that the pressure of being under constant surveillance contributed to his behavior on Room And Bored. And after Valerie says she’ll do her best on Seeing Red, Paulie G. snaps that he hopes she does better than that.
It seems like Paulie G. is back to his old asshole self, but then he apologizes to Valerie, explaining that their interaction wasn’t her fault, and that he’s feeling a bit set up with this whole viewing suite situation. Valerie is in the same position, but she would never let her disappointment show. Instead, she makes awkward conversation, talking about how she wishes she could be an alcoholic so she could go with Paulie G. to the AA meeting he’s attending instead of the HBO after party. Valerie becomes a total mess when she’s around Paulie G., and that’s something Mark recognizes and is afraid of.
The original season of The Comeback highlighted Valerie’s unfamiliarity with the world of reality television, and this week’s episode gives the general impression that Valerie doesn’t watch cable television very much, if at all. Her dress fitting for the Golden Globes with Brad Goreski shows that she still doesn’t have a strong understanding of the type of reality shows popularized by Bravo, E!, and VH1, and she’s totally out of touch with the current state of prestige cable. (I’ve always imagined her as a person that prefers CBS over everything else, probably because it’s the network that is producing programming that most closely resembles the television Valerie grew up with.) But as network jobs dry up, Valerie needs to find another place to reclaim her fame, and that’s the scary world of cable.
You see, Valerie Cherish is oblivious, but she isn’t stupid. She may not focus on details as much as she should, but she can see how tides are turning in television, and she’s tried to adjust course according to these changes. Now that she’s going to be on HBO, she wants to capitalize on this career upswing, and she already has a camera crew following her, so why not sell HBO on some “behind the scenes” footage? Connor, the HBO executive with the strongest attachment to Valerie, says that her plan could be good for social media content, but this is HBO. They’re not going to leave something like this in the hands of a non-union crew that can’t even hold a boom microphone in an office without smacking into the blinds (more than once). And that’s where Jane comes in.
The Comeback doesn’t feel complete until Jane reenters the picture, and Laura Silverman’s subtly textured performance is a big part of why the character is so essential. Silverman’s deadpan delivery provides a nice contrast to Valerie and Mickey’s more exaggerated personalities, and this episode shows how that deadpan quality stems out of Jane’s lifestyle and mindset. To start, she lives in the mountains away from Hollywood, where she smokes pot, brings wounded rescue horses back to health, and tries to find investors for her documentary about Taiwanese boat women.
Jane’s role in this episode allows Silverman to show more sides of the character; because Jane isn’t in a producer position for her first scene, she’s allowed to show more of herself as she greets Valerie, Mickey, and the pitiful camera crew following them. Part of the reason Jane agrees to work with Valerie again is money, but another factor is that she still feels guilty about how Valerie’s first reality show made the star look. This is Jane’s chance to make up for the hurt she caused Valerie nine years ago, something that isn’t explicitly stated, but comes through in Silverman’s performance.
One of the most telling things about Jane is the way she immediately starts directing the camera crew once they are in her home, forcefully moving them into places where they won’t be in the way. She’s already back in Valerie’s world, despite her desire to not be a part of it. But it’s going to take some coaxing to really make Jane commit. She’s generally soured on the whole entertainment industry, primarily because she won an Oscar for her documentary short about lesbians in the Holocaust, The Hidden Women Of Treblinka, and still can’t find anyone interested in her new film. She uses her Academy Award as doorstop and is constantly reminding Valerie that the statue doesn’t matter, but Valerie isn’t listening. She’s enchanted by the gold, holding the Oscar up to her face as she poses for multiple photos.
That gold is also what’s blinding Valerie to all the potential problems of being a part of Seeing Red. HBO means prestige, prestige means awards, and awards are concrete evidence that Valerie has talent. That gold keeps her oblivious to the reality of her situation, but look at where being oblivious has already gotten her: she’s holding a real, honest-to-goodness Academy Award. Holding Jane’s Oscar is the equivalent of shooting up heroin for Valerie, and now that she’s had a taste, nothing can stand between her and her addiction to fame.
- You can hear the influence Valerie and Mark’s therapy sessions in their conversation at the start of the episode. Listening circle? That’s therapy talk.
- Valerie’s prayer hands come out in full force when she bows to the Chinese producer of Brad Goreski’s reality. I also love that Brad Goreski has a reality show that only airs in China.
- I wish we could have spent a bit more time with stoned Valerie Cherish. Also: Jane passing the joint to Ivan is hilarious. She knows that you probably need to be stoned to tolerate Valerie.
- Names that Valerie gets wrong this week: Lena Dunham (“Lila Durham”), Barry Manilow (she says Neil Diamond sang “Looks Like We Made It”). She does wisely choose to look up Jean Stapleton’s name after she does an Edith Bunker impression on her vlog.
- This week’s end credits music: “Walking On Broken Glass” as Valerie and Mark finish their drinks and leave the viewing suite. Being a part of the HBO family is a painful experience.
- HBO shows that Valerie doesn’t know: The Wire, Deadwood, Big Love. But probably many, many more.
- “Sex And The City. Started it all. Guess I’m one of the girls now!”
- “Sopranos. Started it all. In a—in a different way, actually.”
- “There’s no such thing as a definite ‘no.’”
- “Oh! So many people are dead.” Mickey’s general positivity makes this line all the funnier.
- “They shoot horses, don’t they? That movie? Netflix it!”
- “I thought, ‘Who is this?’ Then I saw the cameras and I knew it was you. You never give up.”
- “Is that an Oscar? Is it real? Can I pick it up?”
- Valerie: “Jane, taking pictures with your Oscar!” Jane: “I know, I’m right in the room.”
- “Sorry! Hoggin’ the Bogart.”
- “I’m not a lesbian. I’m not a Taiwanese boat person. But I need you!”
- Paulie G. on The Hidden Women Of Treblinka: “Sounds hot. Sorry I missed it.”
- Mark: “You’re an artist? You’re an actress.” Valerie: “Actresses are artists.”