“The Comeback” doesn’t miss a beat after nine years

By Carter Glace

via Vulture
via Vulture

In 2005, HBO aired a show called “The Comeback,” a mockumentary style sitcom starring Lisa Kudrow, created by Kudrow and Michael Patrick King. It was canceled after its initial 13-episode season amid a polarizing critical reception (it was nominated for multiple Emmys). However, as time has passed, the show has seemed to be retroactively praised, and after nine years, “The Comeback” returns to compete in a completely new landscape of television. I must confess, after watching the first season recently, I was not a fan, finding the show utterly unpleasant. So it was with hesitancy that I began watching the first episode of season two, only to be pleasantly surprised by this new comeback.

A quick recap: “The Comeback” starred Kudrow as Valerie Cherish, the aged star of a 90’s sitcom struggling to claw her way back into the spotlight. Her opportunity comes in the form of mediocre sitcom and a reality show that would follow her return to the spotlight via the sitcom. The result was an unpleasant barrage of Valerie being knocked down one peg after another and choosing to push on with ignorant arrogance. This second season picks up in the present – both the sitcom and the reality show were canceled after their initial seasons, and Val is still trying to manage her image through another reality show in a long string of disastrous attempts. The real plot kicks off when she discovers Paulie G, the deranged writer of her failed sitcom, has gotten out of rehab and is writing a drama for HBO about a sitcom creator being harassed by an aging star trying to steal the show, titled “Seeing Red”.

I think the key to the success of the new episode is a matter of sympathy. The first season was too successful at making Valerie unlikeable, a self-absorbed, delusional maniac who blissfully bites her tongue at her obvious flaws and those of everyone around her (unless others flaws hurt her in anyway, of course). There’s an art to making characters like this work, and along with the oppressively uncomfortable nature of the other characters and the world around them, HBO couldn’t pull it off.

And yet I find Val genuinely sympathetic this time around. Perhaps it is a matter of time: the opening of the episode is dedicated to her many attempts to stay relevant as she organizes the amateur cameramen around her, trying to keep her composure (there’s a reference to student films that was hysterical). Maybe it is seeing how hard she’s trying to make it work over nine years rather than demanding instant fame. The new “The Comeback” carries weight, signs of someone desperately trying to make lightning strike twice and become relevant again without compromising herself. But she’s still just warped enough that her attempts are riotously funny.

Many have already commented on the first season’s ability to foreshadow the future of broadcasting, the landslide of reality TV shows, the decaying nature of sitcoms and the nostalgia of the old ones wearing off. Those moments are the best of season one, and season two seems to be building off that. The meta-gag of having the show on HBO screams potential, but it’s the little things that make the difference for the first episode. For example, Val tries to get into a restaurant with her crew despite a no camera policy, which they counter through iPhones, or how Val storms off the set of a Bravo show when they try to goad her into a freak-out. After being heralded as ahead of its time, “The Comeback” seems perfectly capable of fitting in the landscape it predicted.

If you didn’t find the first season enjoyable, I’d recommend giving “The Comeback” a second chance. Kudrow and her team seem to have found just the right mix of unpleasantness and sympathy to make it work, and the potential for the rest of the season can’t be ignored.

Carter Glace is a contributing writer.  Email him at entertainment@nyunews.com.

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