HBOs The Comeback made its own comeback tonight after roughly 9 years off the air. The result? A mixed bag that shows some signs of life.
Starring the brilliant Lisa Kudrow as washed up actress Valerie Cherish filming a reality show during her comeback, the show was largely panned on first release but later reached cult status. That newfound acclaim is largely thanks to Entertainment Weekly’s effusive and persistent praise of the series as a polarizing, cringe-inducing comic masterpiece. I haven’t seen the original series since it first aired, but I remember it taking a few episodes before I fully appreciated its off-kilter comic sensibilities.
The latest incarnation has a similar outlook.
The premiere episode spends a lot of time either introducing or reintroducing the viewer to the beats of Valerie Cherish’s personality – too much time, in my opinion. Her constant need to control all aspects of her persona while ultimately betraying her totally repellant personality is reiterated over and over and over again. It also spends a good chunk of time setting up the driving thread for the second series: her attempt to woo Bravo’s Andy Cohen (via a brief Twitter exchange) with a new series on her life since the original Comeback. Involved in this setup is an extended sequence with a presumably real housewife of Beverly Hills, but, since I don’t watch that brand of reality show, it largely fell flat with me.
Much better is the eventual revelation that Paulie G, Valerie’s chief nemesis/head writer from the original series, has written a thinly veiled expose of his experience with Valerie called “Seeing Red.”
Incensed, Valerie threatens to sue and visits HBO’s head office with the obvious intent at staging a dramatic altercation. The greatest moment thus far happens when the producers of “Seeing Red,” probably well aware of her intents given the camera crew that follows her, offer Valerie the opportunity to read for the part based on her. Of course, they won’t admit it’s based on her for fear of being sued, but the character is named “Mallory Church.”
She initially balks at the idea, claiming she needs time to read. A producer responds, “Do you need to prepare? It’s pretty close to you.” He is immediately shushed.
Kudrow brilliantly reads through a harsh, near-complete evisceration of herself as written by Paulie G. It must be incredibly difficult to breed such contempt for a character and then shift our perception of her to one of pathos. As much as Valerie deserves this treatment (she’s so out of touch with reality that she can’t remember the names of half her crew or her agent), the scene painfully elicits the plight of middle-aged actresses in Hollywood.
There is also a funny running joke that Valerie was only able to hire a bargain basement film crew who drop boom mics, get pushed down by paparazzi, and frequently film Valerie out of focus.
You have to celebrate Kudrow in the role – partially for her brilliant performance and partially for illustrating Hollywood’s lack of respect for “actresses of a certain age.” But if you’re not into cringe comedy, then The Comeback has changed nothing for you.
They’re just as willing as ever to drag Kudrow gleefully through the muck of the Hollywood machine. Your enjoyment will all depend on your tolerance for this sort of thing.