Update, March 20, 2014: It seems that HBO might have heard our prayers: After almost a decade off the air, The Comeback might be coming back! Just one day after our pleas, Deadline reports that creators Lisa Kudrow and Michael Patrick King are in talks with HBO about making a new installment. We’ll update if there’s more news, but for now the original article follows.
“I don’t need to see that!” My wife, my 14-year-old daughter, a good friend of hers, and I have been dropping that catch-phrase constantly over the last several weeks, cracking each other up and prompting blank looks from everyone around us. Nobody has any idea what the hell we’re talking about.
You might possibly remember (but more likely never knew) that the line was a character-defining refrain for Valerie Cherish, the aging, floundering sitcom actress played brilliantly by Lisa Kudrow on HBO’s The Comeback. The show ran for just one short season during the summer of 2005, five years before the advent of HBO Go, so you’d be forgiven if you missed its first incarnation entirely. But look on the streaming service now and you’ll find it, filed alphabetically between the head-scratchingly bad Carnivale and The Comeback’s close intellectual antecedent Curb Your Enthusiasm. I did watch and like it the first time around, but I only rediscovered it a month ago when my daughter tore through all seven seasons of 30 Rock on Netflix and asked if there was anything else as good. It turns out there was. In fact, The Comeback is much better than I remembered, and it’s perfect for your next binge-watch.
The show was created by Kudrow and former Sex and the City executive producer Michael Patrick King, and any attempt to sum it up quickly tells you just how many layers are going on here: It’s a wickedly smart single-camera sitcom about a fictional mediocre reality show about the making of a fictional, aggressively stupid multi-camera sitcom.
Each episode starts with a reminder that we’re watching the raw footage of a reality show shoot, meaning we see all sorts of things the subjects assume, with more hope than certainty, will end up on the cutting room floor. Those reality show cameras are trained on Valerie Cherish, a narcissistic B-list actor whose high-water mark seems to have been a tedious-looking late-’80s workplace comedy called I’m It! We quickly learn Valerie is attempting to foist herself back on the viewing public as a double novelty act—she’ll take the comic-relief part of “Aunt Sassy” in a sitcom with a bunch of sexy 20-somethings because it will win her the starring role in a reality show about her and her would-be comeback (something Valerie unconvincingly insists she doesn’t need because “I never went away”).
Valerie’s attempts to make her work and home life appear effortlessly glamorous crumble at every turn, undermined on one side by the omnipresent reality crew and its mercenary but basically good-hearted producer Jane (a wonderfully understated Laura Silverman), and on the other by the cast and crew of the hilariously hackneyed sitcom Room and Bored. Valerie’s chief rival should be Room and Bored’s gorgeous young star Juna (Trophy Wife’s Malin Akerman), except that Juna is the only person on either show who genuinely seems to like Valerie and value her showbiz wisdom. The same cannot be said of the slumming-Harvard-grad sitcom writer Paulie G. (Lance Barber), whose contempt for the aging actress is so pure and complete he doesn’t care who sees it. On the cover page of a script for one Room and Bored episode featuring her character, Paulie withdraws his own name and replaces it with “Boyd Duzshesuck.”
Hollywood is not lacking for self-referential stories, including an entire sub-genre of films that portray the industry as literally cutthroat (The Player, Swimming with Sharks, and so on). But The Comeback could be one of the most honest indictments of the business ever made, at least when it comes to the treatment of middle-aged actresses. Valerie is humiliated in a thousand small ways, made to say demeaning lines and wear clownish costumes while her suggestions are ignored and the past glories by which she defines herself are mocked. The genius of Kudrow’s performance is that each of these slights registers for just a microsecond on her face and in her quavering voice before she shoves it all back down into her emotional lockbox and puts on her practiced, resilient smile. We read in this the fact that a 40-ish actress doesn’t have the luxury of fighting back. She must take what she’s offered and show gratitude to be working at all. (Of course Valerie’s suppressed rage spills over at all the wrong moments, including her epic flip-out over not getting a good pool chair while trying to escape work at a Palm Springs resort.)
Amazingly, The Comeback doesn’t feel dated (except of course for the absence of smart phones—but Apple pretty much makes every contemporary film and TV show look instantly stale because of its constant iPhone updates—check out those ancient iOS 6 texts in Sherlock!). And although I fervently wish HBO had renewed it for a second season, the existing 13 episodes feel satisfyingly complete. You’re left loving the things you initially hated about Valerie—the Namaste prayer hands for every thank you, calling her long-suffering husband “Marky Mark,” the constant primping with the aid of her veteran, partially-closeted stylist and dogsbody Mickey. If you’re a fan of sly, intelligent comedy, you do need to see this.