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'The Comeback': Why I was wrong the first time around

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THE COMEBACK
John Johnson/HBO

As a TV critic, I often feel that good shows don’t have a big effect on me. Obviously, the great ones do. But I also find that the ones that I initially dislike are also the ones that I end up thinking about the most, long after they’re over, wondering why they touched a nerve for me in the first place. How can something that inspires such a strong opinion possibly be all that bad?

I thought about that question a lot while watching the new episodes of The Comeback.

When it first premiered in 2005, I didn’t love The Comeback, which was co-created by Michael Patrick King (Sex and the City) and Lisa Kudrow. The show follows Valerie Cherish (Kudrow), a D-list actress who’s clawing her way back into the spotlight with a reality TV show and a new role on a terrible sitcom called Room and Bored. The show was hard to watch from the start. Shot in a brightly lit, fake-documentary style, like something you’d see on Lifetime, it felt like an all-too-easy joke about how shallow reality TV stars could be, and that punchline already felt dated at a time when reality TV had already reached its apex. Valerie was so desperate to be famous, she was willing to humiliate herself again and again on camera, whether that meant drunk-dialing Room and Bored’s douchebag showrunner, Paulie G (Lance Barber), or vomiting on set while dressed as a cupcake. Her catchphrase on Room and Bored“I don’t want to see that!”was exactly what viewers like me felt about watching Kudrow play this role. It was a little uncomfortable to see the beloved star of Friends acting like a desperate has-been.

Other cringe comedies have won over critics by focusing on totally oblivious targets, like Michael Scott on The Office. Valerie, on the other hand, seemed very aware of every indignity she suffered, and yet she was still willing to demean herself, which somehow made things worse. This was the cruelest show about Hollywood that I’d ever seen. Yes, it could be funny and sharply observed. But mostly, it just made me sad.

Apparently, I wasn’t alone. The Comeback‘s first season only earned a 48% on Rotten Tomatoes’ Tomatometer, which averages critics’ ratings. Writing for Entertainment Weekly, Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn criticized its “free-floating contempt.” “The HBO show disdains not just its main character — a fortysomething actress who was once the popular lead of an average sitcom called I’m It!—but anybody who’d watch an average sitcom or have any fondness for an actress in one,” she wrote. In New York Magazine, John Leonard also found its conceit troubling. “What I mind,” he wrote, “is that someone as smart as Lisa Kudrow must suffer excruciating embarrassment unto shame and mortification to amuse us.” What’s interesting is that many of the critics who hated The Comeback have also praised reality TV shows that clearly disdain their main “characters.” Flynn favorably reviewed Jon and Kate Plus Eight. I’ve written favorably about Survivor, a show that once mortified a contestant by showing her without her false teeth on camera. So why would watching a fictional character humiliate herself be any worse?

I wonder if The Comeback taps into a certain defensiveness for TV critics, a guilt about the fact that we regularly enjoy others’ humiliations as part of our jobs. I find it interesting that one of The Comeback’s few favorable reviews came from People: “I saw this show and came away impressed by its mordant humor and bitter truth,” wrote Terry Kelleher. It figures that a critic from a celebrity magazine would appreciate this unflinching look at one woman’s obsession with fame.

I’m not criticizing Kelleher, or any of these other writers. My own feelings about The Comeback‘s first season are just as wrapped up in my job. I recently re-watched an early episode that finds Valerie surreptitiously buying a copy of Entertainment Weekly. The cover story reads “Is Reality TV Dying?” Valerie is understandably upset. “What do they know?” her husband huffs. “Believe me,” Valerie replies. “It’s Entertainment Weekly, baby. I think they know.” This scene stirred up so many feelings in me, including some embarrassing ones. First: Entertainment Weekly! That’s where I work! Yay! Then: Obviously, if Valerie Cherish thinks that what Entertainment Weekly has to say is important, the implication is that the magazine is just as irrelevant as she is. Then I got mad. Were The Comeback‘s writers trying to have things both ways, by flattering EW into covering the show, but still insulting us in the process? And yet, this is the genius of The Comeback. It’s a show about a woman who will do anything just to be on television, even if that means putting herself in an unflattering light. Maybe my initial reaction–Entertainment Weekly! Gasp! That’s where I work!–made me just as bad as Valerie herself. And maybe that’s something the show wants me to examine. If that’s the case, it’s smarter than I thought.

All of this might sound way too meta. But then, the show invites that kind of commentary. Consider that, since its 2005 premiere, The Comeback has become such a cult hit that Valerie’s ridiculous catchphrase–“I don’t want to see that!”–is now a legitimate catchphrase for the show itself, which has now earned a spot on many of EW’s own Best TV Shows lists. And the new episodes are begging to be analyzed in light of real-life context. As season two begins, Valerie learns that Paulie G has created a new sitcom–a roman a clef inspired by the making of Room and Bored–that will soon air on HBO. It’s called Seeing Red, and it stars Seth Rogen as Mitch, the fictionalized version of Paulie  G. No one has been cast yet in the role of “Mallory,” a crazy, narcissistic character who’s a stand-in for Valerie herself. Furious about the idea that Seeing Red will cast her in an unflattering light, Valerie stomps into HBO’s office, bent on suing them, only to cave when they suggest that she might like to play Mallory herself. Yes, people might still see Valerie as a pathetic loser. But at least she’ll be a pathetic loser with her own show.

Of course, The Comeback suggests that Valerie winning this role is just as hollow as any other victory in Hollywood, including the resurrection of The Comeback itself. This season, the punchlines hit close to home. There are jokes about how the actors from Room and Bored are now too famous to share screen time with its star. (That might also be true in real life for Malin Akerman and Kellan Lutz, who’ve landed their own TV shows and blockbuster movie franchise since they played Valerie’s co-stars on season one. Akerman only appears briefly in season two; Lutz was absent from the four episodes I saw.) There are jokes about how HBO isn’t quite the hit machine it once was, and only Game of Thrones keeps it alive. There are even jokes about Kudrow’s and King’s own work: Valerie hints at the faded legacy of Sex and the City, and an HBO exec admits that he had to watch The Comeback’s first season at the Museum of Broadcasting. (The assumption is that it was such a failure, it wasn’t even available on DVD.) “That means it’s classic!” Valerie replies, frantically trying to spin what she’s heard.

Looking back at that first season now, I can see how ahead of its time The Comeback actually was. It anticipated our cultural obsession with fame-grabby demicelebrities like the Kardashians and the Real Housewives, and made way for other meta-comedies like Extras and Episodes. So when I watched the second season premiere, I found it a little stale at first. The first season found Charla from The Amazing Race playing Valerie’s assistant; the second season invited cameos from reality TV retreads like RuPaul (RuPaul’s Drag Race), Carla Hall (Top Chef), and Lisa Vanderpump (The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills). The Comeback might’ve started as a sharp satire, but it now felt like a reheated reality “event” itself.

And yet, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that maybe this was the whole point. I couldn’t stop thinking about one scene, in which Valerie interrupts Bravo’s Andy Cohen at the Chateau Marmont. What was Andy Cohen doing on this show? Didn’t he realize that The Comeback was poking fun at him, simply by casting him in a show about a D-list reality TV star? Or was he totally aware of this fact, and still willing to go through with it because, hey, he’s on HBO, and as a bonus, he gets screen time for one of Bravo’s Real Housewives? Was Andy Cohen just as enthralled and shamed by his casting on The Comeback as I was by watching Valerie buy a copy of Entertainment Weekly?

This is what makes The Comeback truly great: it dares to truly implicate everyone–the actors, the writers, and especially the viewers–for allowing Hollywood to demean people, for actually creating a market for it. In one episode, Valerie is forced to act out a scene in which Mitch, high on heroin, actually tries to shoot Mallory. Trying to comfort Valerie, someone on set tells her that all TV writers want to kill their lead actors. Consider that for a second: one of The Comeback‘s writers wrote that line for Kudrow to hear. So who’s more passive-aggressive: the writer for writing that joke, or me for feeling no qualms about laughing at it?

I don’t want to reveal too much about the second season, because allowing yourself to be surprised by how dark it gets–and maybe even somewhat surprised by how much you enjoy that darkness–is a big part of what makes it so intriguing. I will say that it constantly made me question what, if anything, is too depressing or too real to joke about. (At one point, Valerie joins an improv group, but when she tries to riff about cancer or rape, the teacher tells her that some things are “just really hard to make funny.”) At times, The Comeback even tests the limits of just how little humor a scene can have and still qualify as funny. I don’t mean that the writing isn’t witty, only that The Comeback isn’t eager to reward you with belly laughs just to lighten the mood. And this season definitely made me re-evaluate the moral implications of watching certain comedies in the first place. Let’s just say there’s a very uncomfortable scene that involves gratuitous nudity, and it’s hard to tell whether it’s clever commentary on exploitation, or if it’s simply an exploitative scene. Most likely, it’s a statement that you can’t really have one without the other.

When people say that a show is “hard to watch,” that’s usually a compliment. It means that a critical favorite like Breaking Bad or True Detective might force you to watch unbearable violence or misogyny, but only because it has something important to say about honor or masculinity. When people say The Comeback is “hard to watch,” they use it as an excuse to stop watching. It’s a double-standard: the straight-guy shows that trade in a more physical form of masochism are lauded for being “serious,” while The Comeback, which deals with celebrity and image and other subjects that appeal more to women, is often unjustly dismissed as frivolous, just because its particular form of masochism happens to be emotional. Besides, violence is so common on television these days, it’s gotten easier to watch. But a woman who’s willing to degrade herself on national television just to get on a show? That’s still truly hard to watch. And maybe that’s why I hated The Comeback at first. I had to. Otherwise, I might hate myself for loving it.

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