20 October 2006 | liquidcelluloid-1
An underrated gem for HBO, Kudrow and King triumph in satirizing a bleak TV landscape
Network: HBO; Genre: Comedy, Satire, Parody; Content Rating: TV-MA (profanity, adult content, nudity, sexual humor); Available: DVD; Perspective: Cult Classic (star range: 1 - 5)
Seasons Reviewed: Complete Series (1 season)
In early 90s Valerie Cherish (Lisa Kudrow) was the It girl on a hit sitcom called "I'm It". Now, in the new millennium with the death of the sitcom looming on the horizon and reality shows (band-aids on a problem that are themselves starting to peel off) providing has-been celebrities a temporary life-line back onto TV, Valerie gets a chance to make a comeback in the form of a reality series. "The Comeback", the show within the one we are watching, documents her new career taking a bit role on a network sitcom called "Room & Bored". As the documentary cameras intrude on Valerie's life and her not-so-photogenic real life intrudes on the reality show and "Room & Bored" (plagued with problems from the beginning) itself continues to fall apart, Valerie all the while maintains a phony smile and naively optimistic attitude about the whole thing.
"The Comeback" is a triumph for both co-creators. An acting triumph for Kudrow who explodes in a volcano of talent that laid dormant for 10 years on "Friends". A creative triumph for Michael Patrick King who answers the call to follow up one of TV's all time best shows in "Sex and the City" by making not one new show, but three in one. Now, that mean streak the bubbled under the surface of "Sex", but was forced down by the show's romanticism gets to break out and attack.
Kudrow is absolutely brilliant here, effortlessly carrying the series with naturally comic instincts. As a personality that was associated with everything that is young and hip for so long, it is incredibly bold the way Kudrow fully embraces a role as an unlikable out-of-touch, over-the-Hollywood-hill actress. She disappears into Valerie, who is something like Shelly Long and Katharine Hepburn doing David Brent. "Comeback" is a one-woman showcase, built around Valerie suffering one indignity after another (many involving "Bored's" co-creator, Paulie G, who absolutely hates her) while she smiles for the cameras, pushes her emotions down and explains away every disaster unfolding in front of her face. It is often heartbreaking and painful to watch. When Valerie could just as easily have been a punchline, Kudrow gives her a nuanced depth with layer upon layer of repressed, passive-aggressive behavior. She gets buy out of a sheer single-minded fortitude for attention and "to be heard". So much of this performance is in what she doesn't say, a pain behind her eyes. She was Emmy robbed.
I've always admired King's desire and ability to make TV more than the audience's low expectations allow. He respects his audience and trusts our intelligence to get it. Not many people will be comfortable with a comedy like "Comeback" symbolically structured like a Greek tragedy or take the time to analyze King's endless world of visual metaphors. "Comeback" is a deeply thought out show about shallow TV. Here King breaks apart both the reality series and the sitcom, then cobbles them together flawlessly.
Kudrow and King hopelessly cage Valerie in an entertainment chasm where sitcoms are dying but the quick-fix solution of reality shows turns out to be even more dangerous. Every other show that has poked fun at this genre always does so with an admiring wink and nod. On the contrary, King has no love for reality TV. He shows the clutter of a 3-man camera crew crashing through a room before its subject walks in. He shows the participants editing, re-editing and contriving their own lives for the cameras. He goes beyond showing the participants being manipulated in editing, he shows them being violated by the cameras for cheap laughs that are celebrated by a public that takes pleasure in mocking celebrities. "Comeback" gives us the sharpest and most honestly ugly look at the reality of reality TV you will see. Valerie slowly has the hope that this forum will get her back in the spotlight drained as she looses more and more control over her show.
That same downward glare is applied to sitcoms. As the other show within the show, "Room & Bored" is a perfectly awful parody of every youth-pandering network series that is fun to rip on but would probably be a solid hit if it was really on NBC or Fox. The sheer straight-faced nature of everything and the intricate detail King puts into making "Bored" believable makes it all the funnier. Just about every joke here works. From Juna (Malin Akerman) the sexy break-out star whose popularity swallows up the show to a retooling attempt that jams 2 new characters into an already crowded mix, "Bored" appears to Jump the Shark several times. A combustible piece of fitful hilarity, "Valarie Hangs Out with the Cool Kids" maybe my favorite episode.
To the outside observer Lisa Kudrow's appearance as a once-sitcom star might make it look like "The Comeback" is sponging off her own sitcom. No, "Comeback" is a dark series, raw, messy and miserable. Valerie Cherish will probably scare the bejesus out of the average "Friends" fan. The laughs are found in humiliation, awkward silence and King's pension for injecting real world details everywhere. If there was any thought that the cringing humor of "The Office" couldn't be replicated in America, "Comeback" busts that up.
More consistent than "Curb Your Enthusiasm", a better Inside Hollywood show than "Entourage". King has laser-focused "The Comeback" as a contemporary satire about its specific time and place in the television timeline, yet the show so richly satisfying, complexly rendered and its breakout classic lead character is so unique that it is hard to forget or easily dismiss. A TV show for TV fans, "Comeback" is audience-challenging, utterly hilarious and very highly recommended.
* * * * / 5