Well, she got it. After enduring more humiliation than previously imaginable, after alienating virtually everyone in her immediate circle, and after ignoring the Greek chorus of their collective repulsion, Valerie Cherish (Lisa Kudrow) got her happy ending on last night's Season 2 finale of The Comeback. Her hairdresser/confidant Mickey (Robert Michael Morris) survived another cancer-related scare. She reunited with her estranged husband Mark (Damian Young), who was taken by her willingness to leave the Emmys to rush to Mickey's side in the hospital. And she ended up winning the Emmy she was nominated for, definitively proving her worth in Hollywood, a town that will only have her if she openly debases herself (she did so this time by playing an exaggeratedly unflattering version of herself in an HBO show based partly on her life).
To give Valerie her happy ending, The Comeback did something it never has before—it switched from its raw footage, shaky cam format to something more cinematic. It became a different show. When Valerie fled the Nokia Theater in the middle of the Emmys, she was for once out of the view of her documentary crew's cameras. The action should have cut then, and yet the show went on. We followed her from the theater to the valet to her Uber to the hospital to the proverbial sunset she strolled off into with Mark, and it all looked perfectly composed, steady, and tastefully framed. The format changed from TV about TV (about TV about TV) to TV. It was jarring, akin to the sepia-to-Technicolor disruption of The Wizard of Oz.
And so, I figured, it was all a dream. I had to cope somehow. The smooth edges and fictionalized feel of the last 10 or so minutes of the episode violated every rule The Comeback had set for itself. Neither the toothlessness of the story's resolution nor the method employed to convey it made any sense, and The Comeback has always, depressingly, deliciously, made sense.
In terms of the way it's shot, her leaving the Emmys is the only time we've seen her not being filmed by a fictional camera. It's actually beautiful — and is so jarring. Are we seeing the real her?
LK: She's not a completely different person, obviously. But what I like about it, just personally, is your real life is a prettier movie than a produced reality — how someone else is going to edit your life. We don't go too deep, [co-creator Michael Patrick King] and I. But we know it's an impulse, and we know it's right. He directed it, and he said, "You come out, and it's going to be beautiful." I'm like, "Great, yes, it should be beautiful."
But the beauty of The Comeback is its distinct ugliness. The show is audacious for presenting us with an irritating protagonist and then ratcheting up the annoyance by showing her without filter and then freaking out about that. Without the camera crew to keep her self-consciousness at full throttle, we were presented a Valerie without edge. Away from her own cameras and in front of HBO's, we saw a different Valerie: She was nakedly vulnerable without caveat and kind without self-congratulation. The ending of Season 2 wasn't happy just because of what she had gotten (and gotten back), but because finally, we saw this character without her neurotic trappings. We finally saw her merely existing.
The Comeback was ultimately generous to Valerie, and hasn't that poor woman suffered enough?, the show seemed to ask. Well, no. Not as long as she's inserting herself into situations that put career gain over all else. This was clear throughout the season, but never more so than at the beginning of the Season 2 finale, when Valerie was confronted by her Room and Bored co-star Juna (Malin Akerman). Juna told Valerie that she had "indirectly" hurt her feelings by participating in Seeing Red, which presented a fictionalized version of their time on the Room and Bored set through the biased filter of asshole tyrant writer Paulie G (Lance Barber). "It just makes it seem like I got ahead by taking my clothes off or sleeping for parts," said Juna of her rewrite. "You can't really write it off because you're in it and it's like an endorsement and it's like you're saying it's OK."
Valerie was saying that. This seemingly Faustian deal, in which she had to portray a monster version of herself (and at one point, give the Paulie G character a blowjob) so as to acquire the prestige that results from appearing on an HBO show, ultimately had no real consequences. Valerie played the game and she won. Never has The Comeback been so simplistic.
The finale is so disappointing because this season was great. Valerie is such a fantastically rich character, at times so dumb, at others willfully ignorant, and still at others, emotionally sophisticated. This show is crucial viewing for its illustration of the folly of egocentrism and self-inflation at a time when such practices are more socially acceptable than ever. The Comeback playfully probes the human truth of that which we despise most in ourselves and attempt to obscure can be what makes us actually endearing. Witness Valerie's crisis earlier this season upon viewing her dailies, before Seeing Red had aired. Mickey praised her ("Red, all these years: you can really act!"), but she would have none of it. "No, that's not good," she whined. "Well no because you know… making me look that way. That was Take 12 and tired and he pushed me to that. There wasn't enough light." As always, Valerie ultimately had no say in what she put out into the world, and for once, the world loved what it saw. Even though the ensuing praise (and Emmy nomination) was overly sunny by The Comeback's standards, at least it was surprising and ironic enough to feel fresh.
But after the conventional ending of last night's episode, the show needs a real refreshing. Buzzfeed reports that Kudrow has not yet heard "officially" that The Comeback has been renewed, although it is not entirely clear if this interview was conducted before or after the People Awards, which aired live Dec. 18, on NBC. Presenting Kudrow with the TV Performance of the Year – Actress award, Sean Hayes announced, "Lisa's combination of tenacity and talent not only brought this show back to HBO, but its fantastic reviews have resulted in it being renewed for yet another season."
[There was a video here]
I have no idea if what he said was true, but here's hoping that it is (HBO, please accept this review as my ballot voting YES to The Comeback Season 3). The Comeback would have to do a lot more revising to turn me off entirely. The show owes it to us to bring Valerie Cherish back to the dark side, where she belongs.
[Photo credit: Colleen Hayes/HBO]