FYC: Lisa Kudrow in ‘The Comeback’

I’d always enjoyed Lisa Kudrow’s performance on Friends as the looney and lovable Phoebe Buffay. A show widely praised for its comedic ensemble, Friends benefitted from Kudrow’s off-kilter aura and infectious charm. She didn’t have to carry the show, so she could basically effortlessly float in her own orbit around the rest of the more studied cast.

It wasn’t until HBO’s first season of The Comeback way back in 2005 when I realized that Kudrow was indeed a brilliant comedic actress and was capable of far greater things than the confines of Phoebe Buffay. Entering into The Comeback in a close partnership with Michael Patrick King, Kudrow created the incredible character of Valerie Cherish, a former minor sitcom star who was clawing her way back to relevance on a mediocre show. All of this was captured in a mockumentary style perfected by Christopher Guest, The Office, and Parks and Recreation. Kudrow’s performance was immediately slapped with the “brave” label because she willingly put a face to the television industry’s penchant for chewing up actresses and spitting them out. Always overlooked for the younger, hotter cast members, Valerie’s optimism and lust for complete control over her own image made for a fascinating and often hilarious case study. Emmy noticed and improbably rewarded Kudrow with a nomination for Best Actress in a Comedy Series. She lost, though, to Julia Louis-Dreyfus.

But all of that seems but a preamble to Kudrow’s blisteringly amazing comic work in The Comeback Season Two. Emmy should again pay attention. We’ll talk nomination for now, but I’m thinking long term. Lisa Kudrow should win.

The second season premiere kicked things off in much the same vein as before, and I grew a little restless with the direction. Were they really going to rehash everything we’d seen before about the character? She’s still controlling her public persona. She’s still trying to claw her way back to relevance – this time by promoting herself on a Bravo-based Real Housewives show. As the pilot closed, however, Kudrow and the series made an important and vital left-turn for the character of Valerie Cherish. Using her at-home camera crew (consisting of an untrained nephew), she barges into HBO’s offices to protest the filming of an HBO series based on the making of the show detailed in Season One. Valerie Cherish would never allow a word to be written about her that she didn’t rewrite herself.

I knew the series was going to a different, darker place when Valerie is partially conned with a repulsed yet flattered air into reading for the role based on her on-and-off-screen antics. Kudrow’s delivery in the scene is comic perfection as she performs a cold reading of what appears to be an insulting and damaging portrait of an aging actress. Any self-respecting person would turn away from the experience, but Cherish could not. It’s the beauty of the series and Kudrow’s genesis of the Valerie Cherish character that she willingly puts herself into these insulting and degrading situations. Cherish, something of a prude, is forced to spout vulgar language, and Kudrow’s performance of the scene is at once hilarious, haunting, grating, and wildly uncomfortable.

It’s exactly what she intended it to be. And it set the stage for what turned out to be Kudrow’s crowning achievement as an actress, culminating in a perfect season finale.

The season finale, “Valerie Gets What She Really Wants,” gives Kudrow multiple comic beats to hit, and she nails them every time. Valerie has received an Emmy nomination in the show, and she’s basking in the glory she has so persistently craved. She’s basking alone, though, as her husband Mark has abandoned her, weary of her constant need to be on-camera. Her confidant and hairdresser Mickey (the great Robert Michael Morris) is suffering silently from cancer (well, silently to Cherish as she refuses to acknowledge his mortality). As she attends a pre-Emmy party, she bumps into an old friend Chris (Kellan Lutz) who we later discover has an eternal burning flame for her. Kudrows first great moment of the episode is her polite, tempted, but firm rejection of Lutz’s advances. His many, many persistent advances.

Later, prepping for the Emmy ceremony, Cherish is further stressed by Mickey’s failing health. After sending him home in her limo with a bleeding nose, she is faced with exploding sewage pipes, resulting in a garage full of what her Hispanic housekeeper calls “caca.” On paper, it feels like a standard sitcom gag, but they somehow never play it that way. The comedy is real and intense. Life literally hands Kudrow’s Cherish a garage full of shit, and yet she pushes forward.

Merely replaying the notes of Valerie Cherish doesn’t make Kudrow’s Season Two performance a work of art. It’s the fact that she changes. She evolves. Kudrow’s Cherish has always put her career in front of everything else, and her personal life, in return, falls apart. Gradually, Kudrow reveals the cracks in the facade through the season just as quickly as she cements them. The season culminates in Kudrow’s finest screen work to date. Torn between a potentially dying Mickey and being seen on-camera (and potentially winning) at the Emmys, Cherish decides to put her career on the back-burner for once in her life and run to Mickey in his moment of need. The agony and torment on Kudrow’s face as she comes to the conclusion of what she must do and what she has to give up in exchange is amazing and heartfelt. I argue that few comic actresses could have handled the transition so deftly, so subtly, as Kudrow managed.

Kudrow’s Season Two work as Valerie Cherish is a tricky performance from start to finish. She acknowledges the ugly truth about Hollywood, about men and women, and (most tellingly) about actresses themselves. Her transformation from reality star to human is stunningly realized as the final scenes of the season transition from hand-held camera to more traditional filmmaking. Valerie Cherish grew as a human being over the course of the season, and Lisa Kudrow grew as an actress as a result.

Lisa Kudrow has also evolved: from Good to Great. And Emmy has to recognize this remarkable transformation.

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