The Comeback

Nine years later, the HBO show is not so disgusted by reality TV. But it’s very queasy about fame.

The Comeback

Lisa Kudrow in The Comeback, episode 16.

Photo by Colleen Hayes/HBO

HBO’s The Comeback aired its first, and, for nearly a decade, what looked to be its only season, in 2005. The show starred Lisa Kudrow, exact and quirky, as Valerie Cherish, the former star of a middling network sitcom, so desperate to recapture her fame she signs on to make a reality show about her new job on an even more awful network sitcom. The Comeback, then, was a comedy about the making of a reality show about the making of a sitcom. It skewered both formats with all the affection of an ill-handled straight razor, but that treatment was positively gentle when compared to the bloodletting it reserved for Valerie’s near-spiritual hunger for recognition and fame.

The Comeback has been widely described as ahead of its time. And it was—by at least nine years. Starting this Sunday, the show—a co-creation of Kudrow and Sex and the City’s Michael Patrick King—returns for a second season on HBO. It enters a television environment in which a semifamous person hoping to juice their fame with a reality TV show is commonplace. (Also now, but not then, a commonplace: a comedy filmed in the style of a reality show and series about flawed female protagonists.) When The Comeback first appeared, shows like MTV’s Newlyweds and The Osbournes and E’s The Anna Nicole Show had proven that famous people could get more famous thanks to the format. But for the most part reality TV was wrapping up its freaks-and-geeks phase, the moment dominated by ethically dubious series like The Swan and competition shows like Survivor and The Amazing Race.

The Comeback presaged reality TV’s next phase, still ongoing, in which series don’t necessarily rely on anything special except individuals who believe in their own specialness. Valerie Cherish was a woman whose only truly remarkable characteristic was her desperation for the spotlight. A working actress with a remarkably solid marriage, she wasn’t ill-behaved, she wasn’t cruel, she wasn’t a troublemaker, and she wasn’t very talented—but she did care so profoundly what others thought of her that she lived in terror that they might think nothing at all. In order to be noticed, she would put up with any humiliation. Her implacable will-to-be-seen incisively satirized series that didn’t even exist in 2005: The tentacular Real Housewives wouldn’t begin until 2006, and the Kardashians didn’t start exhorting Americans to keep up with them until 2007.

As clairvoyant as The Comeback was about the shows that would come to dominate reality TV, it was also motivated by an indignation that now seems almost quaint: It was furious about reality television. Kudrow, coming off her decadelong run on Friends, pitched the show to King, coming off Sex and the City, after seeing an episode of The Amazing Race, then just in its second season. “It was all I needed to see,” she has said. “They were vomiting and crying, on camera. It was being broadcast to whoever was watching. Vomiting and crying. I don’t know what’s more humiliating and degrading than that. That was what was on TV. And I thought okay anything goes. People want fame so much, they will even sign up for that. That’s bad.”

To illustrate just how bad, Valerie is unique among fame-seekers: She is exactly the sort of uptight person no sane reality TV producer would ever cast on a show. She makes being on reality TV look hard, awkward, weird, and humiliating. She loves the camera, but, in her outmoded way, she loves it so much that she can’t forget that it’s there. She tries to control everything. She rehearses the most inane moments, constantly gestures “time out” at the camera, and tells her beleaguered producer, Jane (Laura Silverman), that whatever she just said—which is invariably more interesting than what she wants filmed—is off-limits. Her virtues—her decorum, her vague belief in privacy, her decency, her positive attitude, her great hair—make her come across as a chipper, annoying phony. The one way she can’t act is natural. She is hopelessly sincere, and not at all authentic. She doesn’t get it. She is like her generational compatriot Kris Jenner’s opposite: not a fish to reality TV water, but a fish out of it, gasping and flopping and hoping her shiniest side is facing the camera all the while.

The exchange of privacy, to say nothing of dignity, for notoriety—the Faustian bargain at the center of every reality TV show—is shoved into the background of every actual reality show. It’s uncomfortable, after all. But that bargain is The Comeback’s central subject, which is why the show can be so relentlessly cringey. If audiences have largely become jaded about reality TV—for better or for worse—The Comeback was not. At the end of the first season, Valerie, humiliated, was ready to quit reality TV, until she realized that her show (and specifically a scene of her vomiting) had made her a sensation. She signed on to do it all again. It was the happy ending you wouldn’t wish on an enemy. Like the best satires, the ones with real bite, The Comeback was disgusted.

As the new season begins, Valerie is still on the hunt for fame. Soon after we last saw her, both her sitcom, Room and Board, and her reality show were canceled. She has spent the last nine years starring in bad student films and making an aborted appearance on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. (She quits, early on, because she cannot put up with the fake-storyline creation the show demands of its characters. She still doesn’t get it.) Hoping to convince Bravo’s reality TV kingpin Andy Cohen to give her a show, she cobbles together a cut-rate reality TV crew to follow her around once again. And then, in a burst of rare insight—reality shows are about drama!—she crashes a casting session of one of HBO’s new half-hour comedies, a series called Seeing Red, based on her old nemesis Paulie G’s experience on Room and Board.

Paulie G (Lance Barber) was the villain of the first season of The Comeback. One of Room and Board’s boorish head writers, from the start he treated Valerie with disdain. Of course, Valerie is unbearably annoying, and so at the beginning his impatience with her made him seem almost like an audience stand-in. But his dislike soon curdled into something more foul and sexist. He went from being a stand-in to a bellwether: There go people who hate Valerie Cherish too well. Valerie, unfailingly, almost self-harmingly polite, couldn’t get Paulie G to treat her with the most basic courtesy. (One of her most notable characteristics is a cheery refusal to recognize personal attacks. If you prick her, she refuses to acknowledge that she’s bleeding.) Bringing cookies to the writer’s room one night, she walks in on Paulie G. humping a Valerie blow-up doll in front of the entire hysterically laughing writer’s room, the joke being that maybe he could fuck her into being less of a pain in the ass.

Well, it turns out that the whole time he was a heroin addict. Seeing Red is a fictionalized version of his experience writing for Room and Board while being addicted to dope and bedeviled by an older sitcom actress who hates his guts. Valerie, having crashed the casting with her cameras, reads for the part, which is, essentially, herself, and to the shock of everyone watching—the executives as well as us, in the audience—she does a great job. (Kudrow works some real actress magic here, delivering a genuinely excellent performance, but one that seems right at the edges of Valerie’s conceivable range.) She finds herself cast on the show, playing a version of herself called Mallory in Paulie G’s upside-down version of their experience on Room and Board. (His own alter-ego is played by Seth Rogen.) In Season 2, then, The Comeback is a comedy about the making of a reality show about the making of an HBO comedy about the making of a network sitcom. But in this alternate version of the past, it’s Valerie’s doppelganger who is making Paulie’s life impossible by being cruel and vicious—and occasionally transforming into a green-screen monster and giving him fantasy blow jobs. It’s a highbrow re-filming of all the Season 1 humiliations that Valerie always refused to admit were humiliations.

Valerie remains as indefatigably inane as ever, and so does the show business world around her. Her evidence that Andy Cohen is interested in her show is that he once perfunctorily tweeted back at her. Seeing Jane’s Oscar—she won it for a short film about the lesbians of Treblinka—Valerie cannot look away, nearly going full Gollum on Jane’s precious. When she’s told by HBO that what they like about her is that she looks natural, she immediately calls her doctor and inquires about plastic surgery. When a New York Times reporter calls her performance on the show “brave,” it sends Valerie into a tailspin of insecurity: She’s sure this means she looks awful, as “brave” is only ever used to describe actresses intentionally making themselves unattractive, not to describe the quality of the performance.

In this new season, The Comeback is less focused on the horrors of reality TV than on the vagaries of Valerie’s character and her pursuit of stardom. Nine years later, The Comeback just isn’t as furious with the genre as it once was. In this respect, it is like the rest of us. (Vomiting and crying on camera? We’ve seen worse.) In fact, the reality-show format barely makes sense this season: The conceit is that the crew continues to follow her around after she lands a part on Seeing Red so that HBO can have some behind-the-scenes footage or maybe even make a documentary, but both of these possibilities seem very un-HBO-like. (Even granting the premise, an HBO documentary would presumably be relatively classy and not at all like the character-assassination piece that aired at the end of Season 1.)

There is even a surprising soft streak to this season. Valerie is flirting with respectability—and, apparently, she is talented. As her longtime hairdresser Mickey (Robert Michael Morris) says, watching a daily, “Who knew, Red! You can act!” But Valerie doesn’t much care about this. She watches her performance and only sees the terrible lighting. If she knew how she was coming across—raw, exposed, honest, everything she tries so hard not to be for the reality TV cameras—she would probably do everything she could to stop it. But Valerie, as always, has no clue.

Seeing Red will probably get no more viewers than the first season of The Comeback. (Kudrow has described the sitcom-within-the-sitcom as a satire of premium cable shows that never make you laugh.) But Valerie will finally have done good work, which of course will matter much less to her than the accompanying fleeting fame. Maybe she’ll end up on an episode of Inside the Actor’s Studio; she and James Lipton would hit it off. Or maybe she’ll get nominated for an Emmy. Or maybe, if she’s really lucky, people will still recognize her for her work on a little watched HBO comedy nine years from now.