A June 5 Arts article incorrectly identified Michael Patrick King as the creator of "Sex and the City." King was an executive producer of the series; Darren Star was the creator. (Published 6/7/2005)
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.
Now and then, someone confronts her with the smile-demolishing reality of her situation -- real reality, not "reality show" reality. It happens during the taping of the "Room and Bored" pilot, when Cherish begs to do another take of the one line she has in an act-ending scene and, when told no, enlists the audience to chant "Another take" along with her. James Burrows, the best-known sitcom director in television, playing himself, takes Cherish aside and, with a pointed reference to her long-extinct previous hit, tells her, "You're not 'It' anymore."
Even then Cherish tries to maintain a smile of sweet defiance, a composure that insists she hasn't really been wounded by words that must have stung like bees. And fortunately, life isn't just one kick in the pants after another.
She arrives home after the taping to find that leaking plumbing has destroyed her award wall, the place where she displayed trophies and memorabilia. The collection includes "My Leno," a photo of her on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno," which the cascading water has turned into a mess.
You think she's understandably going to sit down and cry, but then the phone rings with the message that "Room and Bored," however stupid a waste of everyone's time, has been picked up by the network (unnamed) for its fall schedule.
Other shows ballyhooed at the network's "upfront" sales pitch in New York include "Take That," in which newlyweds in padded suits and helmets clobber each other with their choice of tools, and "The Search for America's Next Great Porn Star," obviously a licentious variation on "American Idol." To judge from such titles and formats as these, the unnamed network must be NBC, where "Friends" held forth for all those profitable if insanely repetitious seasons.
Is Kudrow biting a hand that fed her? Oh, maybe chomping at it a little. In truth, the upfront ceremony and many other satirical touches are lampooning the network TV business, not any one network or network-owning multimedia conglomerate.
Through it all, Kudrow beams and blossoms, not a Little Mary Sunshine -- since she's capable of delivering her own slyly snide retorts -- but a woman determined not to reveal the hurt inside. Cleverly concocted by Kudrow and Michael Patrick King, creator of "Sex and the City," who has experienced a comeback or two of his own, "The Comeback" takes advantage of pay-cable's greater freedoms without being obnoxious about it. There might be a glimpse of nudity here, an unbroadcastable expletive there. But glory be, the show has weight, dramatic and comedic, and Kudrow makes sure that every zinger is properly zung and, just as important, that every bittersweet detail rings true.
"The Comeback" is a rare thing -- a comedy that can break your heart.
"Entourage" is, of course, more flippant and superficial. For one thing, all the main characters are men, and men either willing to step on other folks' faces to get ahead or else just bobbing frantically to keep their own swelled heads above water. Even so, the guys -- four friends from back East who have formed a kind of unarmed phalanx to protect their most prized member -- are vulnerably likable, no cockier than they need to be to survive in a business where ruthless egomania is the norm.
Nobody bats an eye over backs stabbed or hopes dashed.
Adrian Grenier as Vince is the group's meal ticket, a wised-up kid who knows he's a looker but also knows that will get him only so far. Kevin Connolly, one of the most amiable surprises in the cast, plays his close friend Eric, who becomes his manager. Kevin Dillon is typecast as Johnny, brother of a big star (Matt Dillon in real life, Vince in the series), and has an admirably hilarious time making a transparent fool of himself and walking into one humiliation after another. And Jerry Ferrara plays Turtle, a goofball who is strictly in it for the women, the 70-inch Sony TVs and the women.
In addition, dominating virtually every scene in which he appears, Jeremy Piven does a magnificently ferocious job as Ari, Vince's agent and one of the slickest operators in a town that is elbow-to-elbow with them. If talking fast were an Olympic event, Ari would have gold medals coming out of his -- er, nose. It's a joy to watch a performance in which actor and role seem joined seamlessly -- pure perfection in casting and execution. Ari's put-downs stay put, but he's also the subject of scorn even from his friends -- as when Vince complains to him, "You carry about as much weight as Lara Flynn Boyle."
The series is dripping with babes; beautiful women lurk everywhere, scrubbed and shiny and objectified to the point where they sometimes seem like living furniture, or glamorous baubles picked up in a Rodeo Drive boutique. And yet there aren't any really significant female parts, with such incidental exceptions as that collector's item Debi Mazar in the role of a trendy real estate agent.
It's too bad the plot doesn't zip along as quickly as "The Comeback's" does. In the season opener tonight, Vince is being begged by his agent to consider the title role in a new superhero epic called "Aquaman," and on the strength of a big payday -- even though he abhors the thought of playing the part -- Vince buys himself and his friends one of Marlon Brando's old houses, this one a mere $4 million. Unfortunately, when the fifth episode of the season rolls around, you'll discover that Vince is still arguing about taking the part of Aquaman and Ari is still staging fits and screaming into his cell phone about it.
Along the way, though, there are plenty of enjoyable incriminating details. Gary Busey, still crazy after all these years, shows up in the first episode, babbling pseudo-mystical mush. In the third episode, the boys prepare excitedly for a visit to "The Mansion," which in Los Angeles could only be the Playboy Mansion, and Hugh Hefner makes a dryly self-mocking guest appearance. Ralph Macchio, looking much, much different than he did in his "Karate Kid" days, comes out of obscurity to guest-star in that episode, and later on Bob Saget has a ball trashing his innocuous image.
It's a fast-moving show -- the wheels spin entertainingly even if the vehicle doesn't get very far -- and loaded with insights and sarcasm about the showbiz Sodom in which it is set. It's amusing and playful and rewardingly waspish, but the show that makes the bigger impression, and helps to banish the aridity from which HBO has stodgily suffered in recent months, is Kudrow's. People who were wondering whether she'd make a comeback will discover that she's done more than that; she's made "The Comeback," a comedy that aims very high and sometimes strikes very deep.