"Well, reality TV has had quite the evolution," Valerie Cherish tells us during the first episode of The Comeback in more than nine years. "It's a different reality. And I should know, because I was there at the beginning with The Comeback. Back then, it was just me and people eating bugs on Survivor. 'Uh, what's this? This is entertainment?' Well, as it turns out, yes. Yes it is. I was right."
When she says The Comeback, she's referring to the reality show within the HBO series, but she might as well be talking about the actual show itself. (The infinity-mirror effect is only going to get more complicated from here, by the way.) As those who love it know, The Comeback was detrimentally ahead of its time. Almost a decade after The Comeback was unceremoniously canceled from HBO, Kudrow and show's co-creator Michael Patrick King have brought it back for a limited, eight-episode run. To put it simply: well, they got it!
I have seen five episodes of The Comeback's second season, and overall, the show is as masterful, funny, painful, insightful, and pointed as it was the first time around. It is also as compulsively watchable. I viewed the five advance episodes HBO sent out in one binge watch, and then I went back and watched the first two again for the purposes of this review. I will watch them again as it airs, and again and again after that, as I have been doing with the first season for the past nine years. I love The Comeback and it is a tremendous relief that they didn't fuck it up. The "series return," as HBO is billing it, couldn't be more welcome.
Season 2 finds Kudrow's Valerie Cherish, a washed-up '90s sitcom star/'00s reality-TV subject whose underdog status is as pitiable as it is understandable, attempting to reinsert herself into pop culture using her same method as last time: existing in front of cameras. Val has commissioned students to film her life for an update reel she intends to pass on to Andy Cohen, with whom she almost worked in 2008—we see a clip from her storming off the set of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, feeling like she'd been setup to lie and ranting, "I've done a reality show before. I know how it works."
Val soon receives news that Paulie G (Lance Barber), with whom she worked on the failed sitcom Room and Bored (the fictional show within the show), has gotten a deal with HBO to produce a show called Seeing Red about his heroin addiction and relationship with a readhead "a neurotic older sitcom actress" named Mallory Church. Val reads the script, and fumes over her "horrible" portrayal. "He's written me as a monster!" she screeches. She has her lawyers issue a cease and desist and storms into HBO to confront…well, just about anyone that will listen to her. Fortunately, the powers that be happen to be auditioning characters for that show when she arrives.
What happens then, about 30 minutes into the 41-minute Season 2 premiere, is one of the most emotionally complicated scenes I've had the pleasure of viewing on any TV show. Val enters the audition room angry, only to learn that the producers wanted her to read for the part, but couldn't reach her. Upon hearing this, her tone softens. Her forehead smoothes. That these people might actually like her makes all the difference for Valerie. The script is no longer something to condemn, but a ticket to relevancy. Valerie reads for the role, agreeing to play the monster version of herself that Paulie has envisioned. After she recites a monologue, in which her character confronts Paulie's in words much sharper than those ever employed by the real Valerie, she flees the room. She voices displeasure at her cold reading, but she seems ashamed at how shameless she just was.
And then she gets the part. It is at this point that The Comeback becomes a show about a show about a show about a show. It is also clear that Valerie Cherish's desperation to be liked is at a new high that over the course of the season exposes her to new lows. I won't spoil too much, but Paulie has Valerie endure humiliation more disgusting than we'd previously seen, and that's really saying something for a show that initially failed to find a visible fanbase partially because it was so damn cringe-inducing.
Valerie Cherish signs up for her torture, she debases herself so knowingly (as much as she tries to deny it once she's got the part) and yet, I feel for her. Part of that has to do with how sensational Kudrow is in this role. Her portrayal is the reason they came up with the term "lived-in" to describe acting. Valerie's compulsive tendency, for example, to infiltrate emotional crescendos by saying something completely inappropriate makes The Comeback something of a thrill ride. Follow along closely and you will repeatedly feel your stomach drop.
Kudrow's Valerie lays bare that human need to be loved and appreciated, while exposing the things people do to get in their own way approaching that goal. Valerie wants acceptance, but she is so self-absorbed that she can't remember most people's names—not even that of Jane (Laura Silverman) who produced her reality show the first time around. She is desperate for interaction but doesn't realize how uncomfortable she automatically makes people when she approaches them with an entourage-sized camera crew. (She convinces HBO to let her keep the crew to film behind-the-scenes footage for Seeing Red.) She watches a playback of a scene that she just acted the shit out of, and all she can focus on his how bad the lighting makes her look. Reality stars tend to be utterly full of self-consciousness and detrimentally lacking in self-awareness, a paradox fueled by narcissism. Valerie Cherish is the epitome of that.
But she's not a monster. The greatest injustice Valerie Cherish suffered during the first season was her inability to self-edit, as The Comeback presented the raw footage of the reality show documenting her comeback and she attempted, time and again, to flag the humiliating television gold that had just occurred by yelling "Jane!" But after watching Valerie without a filter and getting to know her so well, we can understand just how unfairly she is treated by Paulie. His main gripe with Valerie, which makes her a monster in his eyes even though he was terribly cruel to her on the set of Room and Bored, is her tendency to give feedback on his scripts. This seems to have damaged him severely, though we know it was never about him—Valerie's notes and requests for changes were only about her ego. She spoke out in fear that she'd be portrayed as lesser than her castmates or as someone who hates puppies. Through Paulie's fictive rendering of Valerie, we are given a window to his egocentricity, and why so much human interaction is practically doomed from the start. We can't understand each other when we're so hopelessly fixated on ourselves. And so much of the time, but especially in the field of entertainment, people come to believe that they can't afford to fixate on anything but themselves.
(Seth Rogen, who plays the Paulie G role in Seeing Red, transcends all of this with something that I assume is rarer in Hollywood than even in the rest of the world: compassion that comes from deep emotional intelligence. Rogen pops up in a few episodes and has never been more likable.)
A lot of Valerie Cherish's self-absorbed delusion is played for laughs—she calls Lena Dunham "Lela Durham," she insists on spending thousands of dollars of HBO's money on a wig that looks just like her actual hair. The show surveys what we unfairly reward in our culture, as well as what we unfairly punish, and indicts it all through hilarious absurdity. It's quite a pickle we've gotten ourselves into through things like selfishness and ageism, and maybe the best way to cope is through laughter. This is entertainment? Well, as it turns out, yes. Yes it is. Valerie Cherish was right nine years ago, and today, she's never been more right.