Nine years ago, Lisa Kudrow’s The Comeback debuted on HBO. At that time, I wrote:
The show isn't funny, but I don't think it's supposed to be. Kudrow's character, Valerie Cherish, is as out of touch as David Brent of The Office, and Valerie is as excruciatingly uncomfortable to watch, but for a different reason. Brent thinks he knows it all but doesn't, thinks he's cool but isn't, thinks he's a good boss but he's the worst. You laugh at him even as you cringe ... in Season Two, you cringed more than you laughed, so awful he got. Valerie is desperate, she's scared ... and she comes across as clueless, but as Kudrow plays her, you realize that Valerie knows what impact she's having, knows things are falling apart, which wasn't true of David Brent. And Valerie Cherish is a 40-year-old actress very close to being a complete has-been. There's something much more sympathetic about a woman losing her position to younger babes with younger bodies, than a boss who's creepy. It's much, much easier to want things to go well for Valerie. And it doesn't, and I suspect it won't, and it's not funny, it's almost impossible to watch, so if you're looking for a new sitcom, avoid this one, but if you can stand the uncomfortable feeling you'll get watching this character be humiliated, it's worth a look. As Kudrow herself said, "Watching a person lose their dignity used to be uncomfortable, and now it's an expected part of the program that we're becoming comfortable with. A loss of dignity can be funny if no one notices it going except the audience. When everyone can see it being taken away, or handed over as payment for fame, it's hopefully uncomfortable."
The series was cancelled after one season, which is understandable, since it was almost impossible to watch. For a handful of us, that impossibility is what made it a good show. The key was always the way Kudrow played Valerie Cherish, as a woman who knew she was embarrassing herself, but who did it anyway because that was the price for fame. Her fame wasn’t very large, which made her willingness to abase herself to seem even more pathetic. But Kudrow had a way of letting us know that she had self-awareness, which was not true of the David Brents and Michael Scotts and Larry Davids. That self-awareness implicated the audience, and that’s why we were uncomfortable. We laughed at David Brent, comfortable in the knowledge that he wouldn’t understand our laughter. That comfort level didn’t exist on The Comeback, because Valerie Cherish understood all too well.
Somehow, The Comeback became a bit of a cult favorite over the years, and now, after all this time, HBO decided to run a second season. The setup is, if anything, even more excruciating than before, if only because Valerie (Kudrow) is a decade older now, and the problems of an actress in her 40s are magnified as she approaches her 50s. She gets shit on more than ever.
And no, it’s not funny, but it’s fascinating in a train wreck way. Tim Goodman ripped the show, which he didn’t like in the first place:
Nine years later, The Comeback is back, as unwatchable and unfunny as the first time around. … It wasn't just painful to watch The Comeback the first time around in 2005 — it seemed pointless. What it was trying to do had already been done in vastly superior iterations. This time, however, it’s almost unbearable. I could only get through two episodes, and I wanted to throw my TV through the window at the end of the first, and myself through the window at the end of the second. … Is that a show? Is that even comedy?
Goodman claims that Valerie “lacks self-awareness”, and that’s the one place where he and I disagree. I think it’s precisely her self-awareness that makes her character so pathetic. Other than that, and his desire that the show be a comedy, we mostly agree. For some reason, I find this, if not entertaining, then at least compulsively watchable. Grade for Season Two premiere: B+.
P.S. The Newsroom began its final season. More of the same. Yawn.