Lisa Kudrow stars in HBO's newest dark comedy

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Here’s everything you need to know about The Comeback: The 2014 HBO series is made of fake behind-the-scenes footage about the making of an HBO series about the making of a 2005 behind-the-scenes reality show about the comeback of a sitcom actress, which also marked the comeback of a real sitcom actress.

Did you get all that? This is the story of the second coming of The Comeback…and it only gets more meta from here. The lines between art and reality are blurred to the extreme in the new chapter of HBO’s cult 2005 comedy series about washed-up ’90s actress Valerie Cherish (Lisa Kudrow) and her desperate attempts to recapture fame. In the first season, Valerie allowed reality cameras to film her television return in a humiliating supporting role as a dowdy landlady on the teen sitcom Room and Bored. In this improbable second season, Valerie finds herself cast in an HBO series about the first season. Which means Kudrow is now playing Valerie playing Valerie. (We warned you: meta.)

”It’s a whole new challenge for her: a single-camera dark comedy on HBO. She’s such a fish out of water on that,” says co-creator Kudrow, who had the opposite feeling when she stepped back into the role of Valerie. ”The first time they put the wig on me again, I thought, ‘Oh my God. There she is. A little older, but look — it’s her.”’

It’s not just The Comeback‘s meta narrative that separates it from other uncanceled fan favorites, such as Arrested Development and Futurama. Rather, it’s that a single-season, low-budget comedy that spent a decade buried behind the shed gained enough grassroots momentum to earn a second chance at one of TV’s most prestigious networks. In a town where everyone’s looking for the next big thing, how the hell did The Comeback make a comeback?

”The common-speak about our show was that it was ahead of its time,” says co-creator Michael Patrick King, who wrote The Comeback as a satire of reality TV well before America knew its Kims from its Khloés. ”No one was used to a woman shredding herself for attention on TV, and now, for better or worse, people have accepted that as entertainment.”

During the show’s 13-episode run, King knew Comeback fans were out there, but HBO wasn’t convinced. When the series was canceled, neither King nor Kudrow considered shopping it to another network. ”Back then, when you got canceled, it meant failure,” Kudrow explains. ”It didn’t mean ‘Oh, for this particular network it’s not working, but it might work somewhere else.’ It’s different now than it was then.”

And so King and Kudrow moved on — him to two Sex and the City movies and CBS’ raunchy 2 Broke Girls, and her to guest spots and Showtime’s Web Therapy. But thanks to DVDs and on-demand viewing, The Comeback found a new following. Then, in early 2014, HBO called. ”Michael and I went in there and they just said, ‘Tell us what you need,”’ Kudrow recounts. ”We looked at each other, and our eyes filled up, and we just stared. We didn’t even know what to say.”

For three weeks King and Kudrow sat on HBO’s offer to revive Valerie for a movie event or a limited series, mulling their creative options. But in fact, the inspiration for Valerie’s second act had already struck before their first meeting. King recalls, ”That morning at HBO, I pulled up to the garage, and the valet told me to go park my car myself. And I thought, ‘That’s a very Valerie thing.”’

In the new season, Valerie reluctantly reunites with former tormentor Paulie G. (Lance Barber), who, fresh out of rehab, sells Seeing Red, a dramedy chronicling his behind-the-scenes drug abuse and frequent sparring with Valerie during the making of Bored. ”Valerie agrees to play it even though she’s probably playing the worst version of herself, because she thinks it will take her to the next level,” says King, adding that the cameras following Valerie are shooting social-media footage, bonus Web content, and more. ”The closer Valerie gets to this heat, the more her life starts to fall apart. The overall arc is, how much of you is really for sale?”

With HBO’s approval on the HBO-skewering concept and just six weeks to shoot the eight-episode season before King had to return to 2 Broke Girls, King and Kudrow hurried to get the gang back together, including original writers Amy B. Harris and John Riggi and their core cast. For Malin Akerman, who reprises her role as ingenue-on-the-rise Juna, it was an obvious yes. ”I’ve been waiting for that phone call for, what, nine years?” says the actress, who jokes, ”I would have quit Trophy Wife to go do two episodes of The Comeback. There’s no way they were going to keep me from it.”

The nine years have changed everyone, from Juna and her former Bored costar Chris (now an action hero, just like the actor who plays him, Kellan Lutz) to the men in Valerie’s life: her husband, Mark (Damian Young), who’s feeling the strain of another decade of marriage; flamboyant hairstylist Mickey (Robert Michael Morris), who has learned to embrace his gay identity; and publicist Billy (Dan Bucatinsky), who’s upgraded his clients from the D list to the B-minus list and clashes with Mickey for Valerie’s ear.

Then there’s Valerie herself. The first episode will reveal where she’s been and how desperate she’s become. ”She has a vlog. She knows what tweeting is, and she’s pretty proud of her unimpressive number of followers. But she still doesn’t know what anything means,” says Kudrow with a laugh ”She was always the antagonist to herself, which is why we felt like she could go on forever. She could have a great movie career, but she won’t get invited to Jennifer Aniston’s party.”

With the last moment of the season still unedited, neither King nor Kudrow can think ahead to future life for The Comeback — they’re anxious enough about high expectations for the second installment. Kudrow worries that the character of Valerie Cherish might not be shocking enough for a 2014 audience. ”It’s just not in her DNA to flip a table,” she explains. ”She’s not outrageous. She wouldn’t survive on reality TV.” King has his own concerns. ”My biggest fear is, what if people don’t think the show is good enough?” he shares. ”But then I realized, you know what? People didn’t think it was good enough the first time.” And look how that turned out.

The Other Kudrow Show
Valerie Cherish’s biggest competition this fall? Fiona Wallice, the iChat-savvy therapist who counsels celebrity clients on Web Therapy (Showtime, Wednesdays, 11 p.m.) — and who also happens to be played by Lisa Kudrow. ”Truthfully, they don’t feel like competition to each other,” she says. ”I don’t think it’s possible to be competing anymore!” Even so, co-creator Dan Bucatinsky promises the most celeb-packed season yet for the show he calls ”a box of chocolates late at night.” In season 4, Fiona will offer guidance to Jon Hamm, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Calista Flockhart, among others. ”We haven’t seen Calista in a long time, and she plays a funny, flirty All About Eve kind of character,” explains Bucatinsky. ”To me, it’s just fun to see people you don’t expect to see with Lisa, and that’s what happens again and again.”
Oct. 22

Episode Recaps

The Comeback
The HBO series that never really went away—finally returns.
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