"The Comeback": HBO airs the sharpest critique ever made of HBO

Nine years after its first season, the cult comedy returns -- and shows us how to do a remake right

Published November 7, 2014 12:00AM (EST)

Lisa Kudrow in "The Comeback"       (HBO/John P. Johnson)
Lisa Kudrow in "The Comeback" (HBO/John P. Johnson)

On the eve of its second season, “The Comeback” already has one of the strangest stories in the television industry — so fittingly, of course, it’s also about a particularly strange story in the television industry. If you have trouble telling the difference between the strangeness of “The Comeback” (the show) and “The Comeback” (the show-within-a-show), don’t worry: The lines are intentionally blurred. Everything is and isn’t what it seems to be.

“The Comeback” comes back from its one-hit wonder status Sunday night with the first episode of its second season — just nine years after the first season aired in 2005. It seems to have arisen from what amounts to a dare among HBO executives and creative: What if we brought that show back? How hard would it be? Would the talent still be interested? And what might happen?

BuzzFeed’s Kate Aurthur has a comprehensive account of the show’s rebirth. "The Comeback" defied the laws of television to be remade by a prestige network for a niche audience, mostly to show that this was possible. It’s certainly hard to believe. And harder still to explain to someone who doesn’t know a lot about the television industry. See there’s this show — about a show — about an actress auditioning for another show. And then that show (the first one) was canceled and then renewed. (The second and third shows were just canceled. I mean, in the sense that they existed at all.) But because nine years have gone by, the show has a lot of explaining to do, and everyone’s in a different place in their lives.

What’s absolutely eerie about “The Comeback’s" second season is how faithful it is to the first season without feeling beholden to it. The original cast of characters comes together as if nothing has changed (save for a dramatic scene where Valerie uproots Jane from her bucolic retreat where she milks her own cows). Mark is still avoiding the camera crews in his house; Mickey is still pointlessly tending to Valerie’s hair. Even the camera angle of the bedroom-cam seems to be exactly the same, as if the camera was never taken down. “The Comeback” was waiting to emerge from a nine-year hibernation this whole time, and like a cicada, it is now very loud. Because the second season is even more confident and opinionated than the first, even if Valerie is nine years older — and therefore nine years more desperate. ‘The Comeback” is the most potent critique of television on television, which makes for painfully familiar material.

And its target this season is the show’s parent company (and resurrector), HBO: While in the first season, the silly sitcom “Room and Bored” was the purview of a nameless network, the second season’s “Seeing Red” is an HBO production, and most of the shooting takes place on HBO property. It speaks to a lot of confidence on HBO’s part to welcome such evisceration. It also means that the comedy is free of that punching-down sensibility that other highbrow comedies go for. “The Comeback” is cheerfully biting the hand that feeds it, and perhaps HBO is along for the ride because the show is so adorable you just want to let it have its fun.

It’s hard to explain exactly how “The Comeback” is skewering HBO without revealing plot points, so I’ll have to be vague. But through some Herculean plot twists in the five episodes the network sent out to critics, Lisa Kudrow’s Valerie Cherish ends up second-billed on an HBO drama helmed by her nemesis Paulie G, the showrunner who made her life miserable back on “Room and Bored.” In “Seeing Red” she’s playing a character named Mallory Church — Mallory and Valerie sound awfully similar, don’t they? — who is the aging, shrewish actress across from a younger, misunderstood, disheveled writer who could use a bath and a shave. It’s a prestige drama dealing with addiction and the creative process and sexual dysfunction. It’s also purely the fantasy of one messed-up guy.

There’s something horribly wrong here — not just with this script, but the whole industry. But Valerie is desperate. And as “The Comeback” shows her limping through another comeback tour, it demonstrates how easy it is for Valerie to embrace the horribly wrong just to get a little bit ahead.

Kudrow — who melts into the role of Valerie after nine years away so effortlessly that it’s easy to forget the actress has struggled to make a comeback of her own — told Aurthur in BuzzFeed that when the show was canceled for being too self-referential, “All I thought was, This is a show about a woman more than it is a show about a show.” In the first season of “The Comeback” that wasn’t always clear; the show took on so many disparate elements of Hollywood culture that Valerie seemed like a caricature of its worst elements. Artificial, undertalented, desperate for attention, gratingly cheerful.

What the second season works to make clear is Kudrow’s assertion that Valerie is achingly real — vulnerable, wounded, brassy and demanding. If she is a caricature, she’s that way because her world has demanded it of her. Survival isn’t pretty, especially when you’ve moved from obscurity to notoriety not one, not two, but three times in one career. Valerie is Hollywood’s version of Jane Austen’s Mrs. Bennet, from “Pride And Prejudice”: Incredibly irritating, but also, weirdly, right, almost all of the time. Call her irrational, call her hysterical, but Valerie does have to be anxious about the number of lines she has, or what the showrunners think of her, or even if the critics think she seems nice, because her career is entirely dependent on these things.

And what “The Comeback” has always been good at is demonstrating how much harder it is to play the game of survival in Hollywood as a woman. Without giving anything away, the third episode of the season is so real about women in Hollywood — and on HBO! — that it’s gut-wrenching.

It’s not that “The Comeback” is a perfect show, by any means. This is likely Michael Patrick King’s greatest work, but the show suffers at times from his particular brand of humor, which is brutal in an already dark show. That’s magnified by the pacing, which plods through cringe-worthy moments with such deliberation that it’s overwhelmingly painful.

But whereas in 2005 it was teaching audiences a bit about how reality television works behind the scenes — now most television viewers are very familiar with the industry. Which liberates “The Comeback” to take bigger swings.

None of it would work without the steadfast anchor of Kudrow’s performance: her plastered-on smile, her manic dedication, her wounded vulnerability, her unexpected moments of grace. Because while “The Comeback’s" Season 2 is a show about a show about a show based on another show, Valerie Cherish is an actress taking on something daring in order to make a comeback — played by an actress taking on something daring (again) in order to make a (second) comeback. Kudrow deserved better. Valerie deserves better. With this second season, maybe they’ll both get their chance.

By Sonia Saraiya

MORE FROM Sonia Saraiya

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