Reality TV is the reality of TV." So sayeth my new fictional hero, the down-but-not-out Valerie Cherish. Cherish is an actor flailing at a chance to reclaim her buzz in "The Comeback," a mockumentary airing this summer on HBO. Is it comedy? A tragedy for the Prozac-and-yoga age? An anti-Hollywood screed disguised as a spoof? Some of my most snarky friends can't bear to watch it, because of its eerie accuracy: "It depresses me," said one friend, who'd seemed so unfaze-able, celebritywise, until now. "I feel so bad for her." And what is the thing about this show that's so hard to see? Violence? Brutality? None of that. It's failure.

Lisa Kudrow plays Cherish, the former star of "I'm It!" -- a dopey early '90s sitcom hit. Now she has a new reality show and a new sitcom, "Room and Bored" (she's no-fun "Aunt Sassy," who lives upstairs from her sexy young niece and sexy young roommates). Cherish puts on a brave face as the sitcom is rewritten to make her more dowdy, and as its writers, director and co-stars exhibit mounting contempt for her. In her self-narration to the reality cameras, she emits a borderline insanity familiar to anyone who's ever taken a meeting in Hollywood: the clenched smile, the perpetual spinning of unfavorable events, the constant compromise.

We've all wondered what becomes of people who have fleeting fame on a TV series, then disappear. Washington reader Tom Leonhardt e-mails: "There must be hundreds of them in L.A. Do they do Little Theatre? Direct? Take unemployment?" They sometimes do all of that (he forgot "teach acting at community colleges in their home states"), and a few even live as normal people with different careers. (For supplemental viewing, I recommend watching VH1's "100 Greatest Kid Stars" -- many of whom got arrested or got religion, but some of whom just got on with life.)

With "The Comeback," Kudrow and company are charting new realms between the fake and real. By the second episode, watching Cherish struggle to maintain her own warped sense of dignity, I had stopped giggling and just sat wide-eyed, oddly torn between wanting her to succeed and wanting her to shrivel away. "The Comeback" transmits an altogether alarming concept: These celebrities we cavalierly kick to the curb are human after all. Sort of.