After nearly 10 long years, Valerie Cherish makes her semi-triumphant return. Note to self: You do need to see this.
The Comeback
Credit: John P. Johnson/HBO

Well, she got it.

By “she,” of course, I’m referring to the one and only Valerie Cherish—and by “it,” I mean a second second chance. (A fourth chance?)

Considering the recent boom in culty TV revivals (Arrested Development, the Veronica Mars movie, Showtime’s Twin Peaks), our culture’s growing love of meta-everything (the best current example: Birdman), and the mid-’00s explosion of TV shows about rich bitches arguing (thank you, Andy Cohen), it was really only a matter of time before HBO brought back The Comeback—a caustic sitcom that represents the nexus of all three trends. And while many nostalgia-fueled reboots inevitably end up disappointing fans, anyone who loved this show’s initial run will be pleased to find themselves nodding in agreement when Valerie’s old nemesis Paulie G. tells her, during their first meeting in nearly 10 years, “You look great. The exact same.”

Why does The Comeback‘s comeback seem so seamless? Probably because the show knows how to explain how much time has passed between seasons 1 and 2, and because that gap is perfectly logical considering everything we already know about Valerie and her universe.

So here’s what happened after season 1’s finale: Room and Bored, the crappy sitcom Valerie was filming in 2005—a.k.a. the show within the show within the show—got canceled. In turn, Valerie’s reality series, also called The Comeback (a.k.a. the show within the show), didn’t get picked up, even though the network told Valerie they wanted a second season of it in season 1’s finale. So Valerie’s spent the intervening years lying low, though of course not by design. She’s deigning to take parts in student films—sorry, independent movies; she grabs the occasional guest spot on a network procedural; she’s trying to push her own line of hair-care products (called Cherish Your Hair, natch) on QVC. She’s still got the love and support of her ever-patient husband Mark, which came as a huge relief to me; it would have been easy for the show to give Valerie a contemptuous partner, but making Mark a genuinely good guy was and remains a much more interesting choice.

Even though things aren’t going horribly for Valerie, she’s still been dreaming of the stardom that’s eluded her since her first sitcom, I’m It!, was canceled way back in 1993. As she’s just realized, though, times have changed since The Comeback officially died in 2005. Back then, reality TV was still sort of in its infancy: “It was just me and people eating bugs on Survivor,” she tells us. That’s not entirely true; Laguna Beach and The Surreal Life, two hugely influential shows that helped shape the non-competitive reality landscape as we now know it, debuted in 2004 and 2003 respectively.

Still, it’s fair to say that Valerie’s reality series was ahead of its time—just as The Comeback itself (the real show; sorry, I know it’s confusing) debuted before American audiences were a) totally inured to reality TV and b) accustomed to Lisa Kudrow and Michael Patrick King’s particular brand of cringe humor. Thank more mainstream, longer-running sitcoms like the American Office and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, both of which also debuted in 2005, for helping to make that sort of thing more palatable.

But now we’re in an age of Kardashians and Bravolebrities and YouTube stars turned real-live-famous-people. Anyone with a smartphone has everything they need to snatch their 15 minutes—which is why Valerie’s decided to give the whole fame thing another go. Her strategy: Shoot a pilot for a neo-Comeback show about her life and deposit it in the lap of Andy Cohen himself.

Valerie already has a sort-of in with Andy. Back in 2008, she was one of the women originally cast to star on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. (Slight timeline fudge: Beverly Hills was actually announced and cast in 2010.) Unfortunately, she left partway through filming, after surmising that the show’s producers were trying to manipulate her into being the show’s villain. (In a funny throwaway line, it’s implied by Comeback guest star/real Housewife Lisa Vanderpump that Camille Grammer ended up on the show as a replacement for Valerie.)

The problem: Valerie no longer has a professional reality crew capturing her every move. Instead, she’s being filmed by a group of college students, including her step-nephew Tyler—which is pretty low, even for Valerie. (Also: Don’t these kids have classes to attend? Is it summer break or something? Is it useless to ask these sorts of questions?) Luckily, she does have one more ace in the hole by her side: her beloved hairdresser/confidante Mickey, who’s as inexplicably loyal and supportive as ever. We don’t get to hear much about Mickey’s personal life in the premiere, which is a shame; I hope that he’s still with Robert.

NEXT: Didn’t think it could get more meta? Just you wait…

It’s a good thing Valerie chose this exact moment to shoot that pilot. Because her publicist—played as ever by Dan Bucatinsky, who also created Web Therapy with Kudrow—has some news to deliver, right before he delivers Top Chef alum Carla Hall (hootie hoo!) to a Top Chef Superchef All Star reunion show: Ex-Room and Bored creator Paulie G. just inked a deal with HBO. He’s making a series called Seeing Red, which charts a self-destructive TV writer’s experiences on the set of the crappy sitcom he created—a crappy sitcom that stars a neurotic, “older” actress. Whose name… is Mallory Church.

Naturally, Mallory—er, Valerie—is incensed. The script, or at least the few pages she can bring herself to read, casts her as an antagonistic monster. This could be even worse for her image than the Cupcake Incident. Mark offers to call their lawyers, who can send a Cease and Desist notice to HBO. But after crashing Andy Cohen’s lunch with RuPaul at the Chateau Marmont, Valerie has a different, wonderful, awful idea. Andy clearly won’t work with her again unless she’s willing to go Housewife big—flipping over a table, or ordering her costar to GO TO SLEEP, or tossing her wooden leg across the room. So she decides to storm HBO’s offices with her college crew and demand to see “someone in charge of Seeing Red.”

Ridiculous thing #1: Valerie happens to arrive on the day that the network is auditioning actresses to play Mallory Church. (In the running: Kathryn Hahn, Chelsea Handler, Meredith from The Office.) Ridiculous thing #2: When Sharon from HBO appears and finds Valerie at the front desk, she believes she’s there to audition for Mallory, rather than to shut down the entire production. Ridiculous thing #3: Even after the misunderstanding is cleared up, Valerie decides to do a cold reading for the part… and she absolutely nails it. Which may not say much about her acting ability, but is still enough to convince the big brass that she’s the right fit for their show. (Quoth one executive after Valerie leaves the room: “I don’t know what that was, but I’ve gotta have more of it. Is that weird?”)

And so the hall of mirrors that is The Comeback gets an extra wing. Valerie’s in; the rest of the season will chart her Möbius-esque descent. When we see shots from Seeing Red‘s fake sitcom, we’ll officially be watching a show (the sitcom) within a show (Seeing Red) within a show (the fake Comeback) within a show (the real Comeback). Fasten your seat belts, everyone; it’s gonna be a bumpy night.


—Valerie’s surprisingly nuanced relationship with Juna—Room and Bored‘s hot, young rising star, played with wide-eyed charm by Malin Akerman—was one of the highlights of The Comeback‘s first season. Unfortunately, it won’t be a fixture on season 2; Valerie runs into Juna, who’s become a big movie star in the past decade, just briefly enough to learn that she’s going to be out of town for three months shooting a movie in which she falls in love with a robot. Another nice nod to the real world: Kellan Lutz’s character has also become super famous in the universe of The Comeback.

—Mark’s daughter Francesca is mentioned but not shown, maybe because actress Vanessa Marano is currently busy filming ABC Family’s Switched at Birth. The Comeback: What a career starter!

—Ugh, of course Paulie is smoking an e-cig.

—Bless his heart, Mickey still uses a flip phone with an antenna.

—Will Seeing Red be as punishing and humiliating for Valerie as Room and Bored was? Given the surprisingly sensitive monologue she recites in her audition—in which “Mallory” takes Fake Paulie G. to task for trying to make her into a joke—I’m sensing (and hoping) that the answer will be “no.” Maybe rehab actually turned him into a kinder, gentler guy!

—Do you need even more Valerie before episode two next week? Here, feast your eyes on this bonus feature from the season 1 DVD set—in which Val describes turning down “the lead role in a TV movie about a woman who’s raped by her entire town.”

—Who’s hungry? I could really go for a bento box and a Philly cheese curry.

Follow me on Twitter: @hillibusterr

Episode Recaps

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