Only a little ways into watching the much, much awaited return of HBO’s “The Comeback,” I remembered the pain.
Looking back on the show’s lone, brilliant season from 2005 — large parts of which I could re-enact from memory if called to do so — viewers typically think of how much we laughed at Lisa Kudrow and Michael Patrick King’s wonderfully conceived send-up of showbiz and reality TV.
Now that it’s back (the series returns Sunday for eight episodes, mostly as a gift to the fans who demanded it), viewers may rediscover the lump in the throat that accompanied watching “The Comeback.” It’s an icy sort of hurt that follows Kudrow’s character, a washed-up and self-absorbed former sitcom star named Valerie Cherish.
There’s a lot of humiliation and embarrassment involved, and not the cutesy kind of awkwardness that we went on to celebrate in other mockumentary-style comedies like “Modern Family,” “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation.” “The Comeback” hurts in a way that feels about as real as something fake can hurt. Heartbreak was the show’s true triumph, but it’s also the part of the show that viewers might have easily repressed.
The good news — which is also the “bad” news upon which a sequel to “The Comeback” must hinge — is that Valerie hasn’t changed a bit. (And Kudrow still plays her with a perfect blend of cluelessness and manipulativeness.)
A great deal of this new iteration of “The Comeback” is essentially an homage to the first, with cameos and tangents involving characters from Valerie’s world who, to their dismay, are still characters in Valerie’s world. It’s hard to say if the first five episodes of the new series entirely succeed the same way the original series did, especially when you spend most of that time simply being glad that it’s on again. As with most wishes that suddenly come true in pop-culture land, there’s bound to be some letdown.
The show’s original premise, which was slightly too meta and even a bit too ahead of its time nine years ago, is a mockumentary journey into Valerie’s attempt to revivify her sad acting career.
In another era (the early 1990s), Valerie was the star of a brainless network sitcom called “I’m It!” A decade after the show’s cancellation, she jumped at the chance to join the cast of a new sitcom called “Room and Bored,” in which she played “Aunt Sassy,” a past-her-prime, upstairs-neighbor presence in the lives of a group of cute, young housemates. Dressed in a humiliating pastel-hued track suit, Valerie, who was in her early 40s then, was made to play the equivalent of a grumpy senior citizen.
At that same time, the fictional executives of the network had another idea to accompany the ad campaign for “Room and Bored”: a reality show about an actress — Valerie Cherish — on the brink of a career comeback. Thus, “The Comeback,” told in the form of raw, unedited footage from the reality show, became a fascinating and frighteningly accurate depiction of celebrity culture and the TV business.
Valerie kept pressing the sitcom’s creators (including an unctuous young writer/producer named Paulie G.) for more lines and attention, seemingly unaware that show didn’t need her character at all.
Meanwhile, “The Comeback’s” camera crew, including a sympathetic field producer named Jane (Laura Silverman), discovered a richer mine of material in Valerie’s home life as a Beverly Hills wife and stepmom. What “The Comeback’s” cameras captured was the world, circa 2004-2005, just before it became fully wired and permanently Kardashianated. That’s the reason “The Comeback” lasted in memory far longer than another comedy might have — it was succulently detailed, informed by wicked, firsthand observations of the TV industry from King, who produced and wrote for “Sex and the City,” and Kudrow, who had just come off the phenomenal success of NBC’s “Friends.”
“The Comeback” remains an almost historical document of our culture’s step into a bottomless void of narcissism, where there would no longer be such a thing as permanent shame. Valerie was already living on a plane in which a lack of self-awareness turned out to be the career juice she needed. As “Room and Bored” flopped on the fall schedule, Valerie’s “Comeback” reality show became a hit. All she had to do was laugh along with her own public embarrassment. From her, a thousand “Real Housewives” marched forth.
Ten years on, we find Valerie slightly miffed that the glory accidentally visited upon her by “The Comeback” was fleeting. Since then, she has worked sporadically (imagine her in a cheap slasher film here, a few “CSI” episodes there) and even had a shot at being on Bravo’s “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” except that she distrusted the producers and had an on-camera meltdown during the filming of a pilot episode circa 2008, accusing the show of being scripted.
Valerie, who still lives in Beverly Hills with her long-suffering husband Mark (Damian Young) and still has her fiery tresses tended to by her loyal hairdresser Mickey (Robert Michael Morris), has decided to launch her own show and reclaim what she feels is her rightful place in the history of the reality-TV genre.
She hires an amateur camera crew (including Mark’s spoiled nephew) to follow her around and help her film a micro-managed sequel to “The Comeback.” She hopes to create a pilot episode to show to Bravo’s Andy Cohen, who makes a cameo as himself, lunching at the Chateau Marmont. (“I get it now,” she whispers to Cohen, regarding the dirty little secrets of reality TV.)
Here’s where things get ridiculously, even deliciously meta: Valerie learns that her former “Room and Bored” nemesis, Paulie G. (Lance Barber), is shooting a semi-autobiographical comedy series for HBO called “Seeing Red.” It’s about a TV writer/producer trying to launch a network sitcom while battling a heroin addiction and being tormented by an older, washed-up actress.
Valerie obtains a copy of the script and decides to march over to HBO and threaten to sue the network for defamation, with her camera crew in tow. Long story short, Valerie winds up getting cast in the part based on her (“Mallory Church”), opposite Seth Rogen, who is playing a character based on Paulie G.
To that, the fictional HBO executives decide they would like to make a professionally produced “behind the scenes” documentary about Valerie’s return to television, in the same vein as “The Comeback.” Valerie begs the reclusive Jane (now a jaded, Oscar-winning documentarian) to film her latest comeback. Despite Jane’s better judgment, she agrees to the job, mostly because the HBO money will fund her next documentary.
It might sound confusing, but it’s also perfectly suited to the present day. Finding herself immersed overnight in the cachet of filming an HBO series, Valerie realizes too late that she is reliving a nightmare.
Her self-absorption renders her incapable of separating the Mallory role that Paulie G. has written from her own identity, and Jane’s cameras are once more capturing moments that Valerie cannot control, no matter how many times she gives Jane the familiar time-out signal.
The first and second episodes drag a bit, taking a little too long to get to what “The Comeback’s” fans are here for — it’s more waiting on top of the nine years we’ve already waited. Soon enough, the show recaptures its old rhythm and we are rewarded. When Paulie G’s script calls for a fantasy scene in which Mallory Church performs oral sex on his Seth Rogen character, Valerie tries to play it cool, telling Jane’s camera that it’s all part of the biz.
“How do you film something like that?” Valerie’s husband wonders.
“I don’t know,” she says. “I haven’t done a sex scene since I made out with Alan Thicke in that ‘Growing Pains’ flashback.”
Though much is made of Valerie’s disastrous participation in a Groundlings improv comedy class (which she takes in hopes of keeping up with her co-star Rogen’s ability to riff in the middle of a scene), it’s worth keeping in mind that “The Comeback” is not a work of improvisation, even though it appears to be. A moment arrives in episode 5 that is very much like a crucial pivot in the original series, when Jane first realized that Valerie is a wounded, even pitiable subject, deserving of protection from the exploitative cameras all around her.
It’s a reassurance that the narrative arc is very much in the careful hands of writers who cherish Valerie Cherish the same way that viewers do. When a New York Times reporter visits the “Seeing Red” set and compliments Valerie on a “brave” performance, Valerie begins to worry that she is once again complicit in her own career sabotage, seeing as how she is now clad head-to-toe in a bright green body suit so as to be turned into the CGI “monster” that Paulie G. envisions her to be. She scrambles around to rescue her image, even as it’s possible that Paulie G.’s show and HBO’s standards have brought out the finest acting work she’s ever done.
This is when I love Valerie the most — and why I ache for her as well. Even when things go right, she just can’t get out of her own way.
(40 minutes) premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on HBO.