what i watched last week
thursday throwback (happy thanksgiving)

the comeback: "valerie is brought to her knees"

Last Sunday’s episode of The Comeback elicited some excellent commentary, particularly regarding the last scene:

Rose Maura Lorre: “I could feel that shoulder-hunching sense of … well, nervousness, almost. I get butterflies in my stomach when I watch this show, reveling in the sense that something dreadfully droll is about to happen.”

Emily Nussbaum:

“In “The Comeback” ’s standout sequence, Valerie films the sort of graphic sex scene that’s become a numbing cable convention. A two-minute-long, mostly wide-frame shot—in which Valerie, clothed as Aunt Sassy, stands flanked by two naked porn actresses, who moan orgasmically—is at once hilarious and excruciating, deliberately lingering past the point of comfort. The sequence paralyzes the viewer, pulling off a satirical triple lutz, a critique that doubles as the thing being critiqued. Valerie knows enough to praise those naked girls: “So free! So beautiful, really.” Her job, she’s learned, is to be a good sport. Any hint of resistance might get her tagged as “difficult.”

And, as is often the case, Maureen Ryan nails it better than anyone, as she compares the episode to an episode of Outlander. First:

"Outlander's" wedding episode meticulously and joyously depicted a sexual and emotional journey between two consenting adults, and it shouldn't be revolutionary that it did so from a woman's point of view, but it was. By so wholeheartedly embracing the female perspective and honoring a woman's sexuality, "Outlander" made it clear that there is an enormous amount to be gained from incorporating and sometimes prioritizing the viewpoint and desires of female characters. The viewer was complicit in that female gaze, but the experience, at least from my point of view, was uplifting and exciting.

And then:

Hearing the naked women make fake orgasm sounds, having that scene last for what felt like ages, seeing the look on Valerie's face, seeing the varied yet strained reactions of the crew; it all made for one of the most uncomfortable moment in the history of "The Comeback." It was a discomfort we were meant to feel, and we were meant to think about all the porn-y and semi-porn-y moments that the TV industry (not just HBO) has manufactured over the years. Everyone on that soundstage … appeared to feel a prickly, ungenerous complicity, and so did I as an audience member.

That complicity is one of many reasons a large number of viewers reject The Comeback. It is one of the least-feel-good series of all time. The shows it is most often compared to (“cringe comedy”) don’t come close. David Brent on The Office was a clueless moron, we cringed because it’s not easy to laugh at someone that clueless. Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm is so self-absorbed, he’s clueless even when he’s right. But Lisa Kudrow’s Valerie Cherish pretends to be a clueless moron, because that’s the only way she knows to maintain her position as a professional. Many times when David Brent or “Larry David” are humiliated, they don’t realize what has happened. Valerie Cherish always knows. Admittedly, she is usually a willing participant, but The Comeback never lets the audience off easy: we always know the pain Valerie goes through, while David and Larry rarely feel pain. (Ricky Gervais finally let it all out in Extras.)

And so, to “Valerie Is Brought to Her Knees”, a title that turns out to be literal. If you watch the show, you can skip to the next paragraph, but if you don’t, let me suggest the levels of meta involved here. The Comeback is an HBO series about a once-popular sitcom star, Valerie Cherish, who struggles to remain relevant in the public eye as she enters her 40s. The series stars co-creator Lisa Kudrow, an actress in her 40s who is known for her participation in Friends. In Season One, Valerie gets a recurring part on a new sitcom that hopes for a hip young audience; she is the only middle-aged regular character, and she exists to be the butt of jokes about how pathetic she is. She is simultaneously making a reality series, The Comeback, where she is followed around by a film crew documenting her attempt to resuscitate her career. In Season Two, which takes place nine years later (the actual series having been cancelled after one season, only to return nine years down the road), Valerie gets a job on a new HBO series created, written, and directed by one of the writers on the old sitcom from Season One. He was a heroin addict; now he is the toast of Hollywood for making his own comeback. The HBO series is a fictionalized version of his life, and focuses on that old sitcom. Valerie is hired to play the character that is based on … Valerie Cherish. And once again, she is followed by a documentary film crew. It becomes clear that the addict/writer is taking out his long-lasting frustrations with Valerie through his new show.

In this week’s episode, he includes a scene where the character based on himself (Seth Rogen is hired for the sitcom, and, of course, Seth Rogen is hired in reality to play “Seth Rogen” on The Comeback), gets a blow job from the character based on Valerie Cherish. He edits it to include a fantasy sequence that lets us know while the character based on himself is getting a blow job from the character based on Valerie, he is thinking about hot young naked porn actresses.

When it comes time to film the blow job, he instructs Valerie to get on her knees, and instructs “Seth” to put his hand on her head, pushing it down. Valerie needs to explain … to her fellow actors, to the crew, to the audience for the documentary, and for us sitting at home … she needs us to understand that this never happened, that Valerie Cherish never gave a blow job to this guy in real life. Only two people seem to understand: “Rogen”, who convinces the asshole to shoot the scene with Valerie’s head out of the frame, and Jane, the director of the documentary, who is an ever-present witness to how Valerie is abused.

Lisa Kudrow is amazing … all of the above, the meta and the rest, she gets across. We see an actress, Lisa Kudrow, now 51 years old, who has to go through shit on a daily basis just to do what she loves. We see Valerie Cherish, who goes through shit and asks for more, because she believes it is the only way to remain in the game. We see the ways she is humiliated … we see the ways she is involved in her own humiliation … and in Valerie’s eyes, we see what all of this does to her. It’s the latter that you never see on Curb Your Enthusiasm. It’s as if Kudrow/Cherish is silently begging us to understand, knowing all along that we’re just an audience getting enjoyment out of her plight.

No wonder people don’t want to watch this show. The usually-reliable Tim Goodman called it “unwatchable and unfunny”, stating “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.” Catch my wife when she’s in a good mood, and she’ll allow that The Comeback is very good at what it does. So good that she can’t bear to watch it, and doesn’t know why anyone else would, either.

The Comeback makes us feel uncomfortable. It puts us alongside Valerie Cherish with her head between Seth Rogen’s legs, insists that even as we laugh, we get the humiliation factor from the perspective of the abused. The Comeback is not fun. It is, as Valerie informed us back in season one, a dramedy, which is a comedy without the laughs.

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