"The Comeback" on HBO is the rare television series in which the lead character is so succinctly defined by her hair that she barely has to speak.
Lisa Kudrow plays Valerie Cherish, the former star of a top-rated sitcom ("I'm It!") who is desperate to reclaim her celebrity stature. After a decade out of the spotlight, Cherish has been cast in a new television comedy called "Room and Bored," in which she plays dowdy Aunt Sassy, the upstairs neighbor to a quartet of sexy pals. She is the modern equivalent to Mrs. Roper of "Three's Company," with cheap jogging suits standing in for floral caftans. Cherish also has her own reality show -- called "The Comeback" -- documenting her attempt to rekindle stardom. She is trailed at all times by a clumsily intrusive camera crew.
Cherish displays an eager willingness to be demoralized, compromised and embarrassed in the pursuit of celebrity. As her dignity suffers blow upon blow, Cherish's smiles get tighter and her chatter alternates between chirpy spin-doctoring and acerbic retorts. Cherish is hypersensitive to the petty rules of Hollywood that govern her life, and she is almost entirely oblivious to her own desperation. But it is that tiny remaining speck of Cherish's self-awareness that makes the comedy heartbreaking.
All of the show's nuances are reflected in Cherish's most distinctive physical characteristic, her long red hair with its painstakingly organized curls that have been flipped back and away from her face. That hair is gloriously thick and the waves fall with an unnatural precision. The hair appears Breck Girl clean, devoid of the styling products now used to give hair an informal, slightly messy appearance. Hers is hair meant to be tossed in slow motion during the opening montage of "Baywatch."
In constructing the character, Kudrow has said that Cherish's hair color was a calculated decision. In Cherish's mind, "blond is dumb comedy, red hair is smart, sexy comedy." And, presumably, brunette isn't funny at all.
The hairstyle isn't as terribly old-fashioned as a bouffant or a beehive. Cherish doesn't have any of the knowing kitschy charm of a John Waters character. There's nothing emphatically wrong with Cherish's hair -- it's not a mullet, after all. Instead, the hair (which is actually a wig on Kudrow) quietly announces Cherish's subtle disengagement from contemporary culture -- a fatal flaw for a woman attempting to reclaim the title of "it girl" or at minimum embody the current zeitgeist. Cherish has fallen behind as popular culture has galloped forward. Her hair is a blend of Farrah Fawcett in "Charlie's Angels," Candice Bergen as Murphy Brown, and Jessica Rabbit -- with a bit of Rita Hayworth thrown in for added glamour, says Candy Walken, Kudrow's hairstylist.
"She's stuck in her heyday," Walken says of the Valerie Cherish character. "It happens to a lot of women. If you're not out there working and going to the hippest salons, you get stuck.
"The type of woman Valerie Cherish is, the only way she's glamorous is when she's looking the way she was looking when she was the hottest thing since sliced bread."
Walken has been a hairstylist for 22 years. She recalls an actress once telling her, "If the hair is perfect, I really don't need to act." Walken wears her own hair in an updated shag in a shade of strawberry blond similar to Cherish's -- a fact Walken says is sheer coincidence.
Cherish's obsession with her hair is reflected in her relationship with Mickey, her longtime hairdresser who is also her aide-de-camp and confidant. He has a readily accessible supply of henna, hair spray and giant setting rollers. And he happily provides counsel on fashion choices and career politics. Mickey, played by Robert Michael Morris, is her yes-man, her entourage, her biggest fan.
Each day Walken blows Cherish's hair straight and then uses a curling iron with a 11/2-inch barrel to add spiral curls around her face. On the show, however, Mickey sets Cherish's hair on rollers the size of juice cans, an old-fashioned styling method used to underscore how woefully out of date the two have become.
In last week's episode, Cherish attended the People's Choice Awards and needed a red-carpet look. She ditched long-suffering Mickey in favor of a trendy stylist. ("You have to do what you have to do," he said with a dismissive wave of his hand and sweat beading across his forehead.)
"All of my friends just loved that scene," says Walken, a personal stylist to several actresses. "But when it comes to the Academy Awards, I don't do them. When those nights come up, it's really sad.
"I can empathize with Mickey."
For the big evening, Cherish's hair is blown straight. She looks modern. She looks good. (Except that she's wearing her Jay McCarroll couture backward.) But when the fans don't scream for her autograph, she doesn't attribute the oversight to the passage of time or her sputtering career. She blames their silence on her new hair.