HBO's Sharp 'Comeback,' 'Entourage': The Returns Are Promising

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 5, 2005

Is there a subject more boring or more excessively explored than fame, stardom, celebrityhood? Magazines report there is more public interest than ever in stars -- and at a time when the stars who shine brightest seem particularly colorless and bland. Consumers can rig their cell phones to deliver the latest poop and piffle about instant icons who may instantly vanish, and has-beens willingly mock their ignominy on "reality" shows made tacky on purpose.

Under the circumstances, the notion of one new and one returning series about stardom occupying the most prominent hour on HBO's Sunday night schedule sounds ridiculous and death-wishful. But, as if to prove again that expectations are unreliable and that even the weariest, dreariest topics can be made fresh, "The Comeback," starring Lisa Kudrow, and "Entourage," the story of a young star and his living comfort-cushion of cronies, sparkle and glow with brilliance and warmth -- a cool warmth, perhaps, but that's better than none.

"Comeback," which reminds us that Kudrow was the absolutely best performer on "Friends," the late NBC sitcom that is still being mourned -- mainly by NBC -- premieres tonight at 9:30. At 9, "Entourage," a sardonic saga about a working actor who does very little of either, returns for a second season still eminently watchable, its characters not just retracing steps and restating traits but becoming more substantial and endearing.

"This is your year, Johnny," an actor in "Entourage" is told by his agent only moments after another actor is told, "This is your year, baby," by another agent. It's all bull and bluff, the meat and potatoes of Hollywood, but based on the first two episodes of "Comeback," Sunday is Kudrow's night, and although entirely different in tone and approach, Kudrow's show is good enough to make one a little less lonely for Larry David's "Curb Your Enthusiasm," another series in which a celebrity plays a celebrity. (It won't return until winter.)

"Comeback" might be good even with someone less emphatically fabulous in Kudrow's part. But with her firmly ensconced, the show truly teeters on wonderful. This is probably TV's most poignant half-hour comedy in years, a masterfully modulated combination of shrewd satire and a tender, even tearful, central story. As the title more than just suggests, it's the account of an actress's attempt to reclaim expired fame, to make a big enough splash that the mass audience will think she never really went away.

Kudrow plays Valerie Cherish, the former star of "I'm It," an apparently frothy comedy that was a big TV smash a dozen years earlier.

Now, a defensive smile fixed firmly on her face, she is attempting to twinkle and grin her way back into America's heart -- not quite realizing, or willing to realize, that her new role on "Room and Bored" is embarrassingly incidental; the spotlight really shines on two brainless but bulging couples who are forever forgetting to wear all their clothes.

Both the girls and the boys

regard Cherish as a quaint curiosity from the past, and when they elbow her out of a publicity shot or forget to tell her where they're

all going for dinner, it's done more out of instinctual self-preservation than out of meanness. Also, they're that most common of species in Hollywood, slickly attractive imbeciles. They aren't quite intelligent enough to be outright malicious.

Meanwhile, to lift the series up another notch, Kudrow's cherishable Cherish is also starring in her own reality show, "The Comeback," which aims to document her return to television and give viewers an inside view of the way it all works. That means Cherish arrives for every meeting and appointment with a clankety camera crew at her heels, or her toes if they get ahead of her, annoying the hell out of associates, many of whom point at the camera and say "Turn it off" or just "Off" or just "No."

Cherish is determined to maintain a forgiving glee through all of it, conscious perhaps that she's lost the kind of clout one needs to act the diva and step on underlings as if they were bugs in the bathroom of life. "I'm a survivor, I'm gonna make it," go the lyrics to the theme song, a parody of all those other assertive anthems about being a survivor who's going to make it. But in one sense or another, Cherish certainly deserves to.

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