Lisa Kudrow and Michael Patrick King’s The Comeback is difficult television — its comedy is more difficult than most drama. There’s nothing new, anymore, about Comedy of the Cringe, but when The Comeback first aired nine years ago, it was something of a pioneer of the genre. At the time, people didn’t seem quite ready to cringe through an entire half hour of TV, and The Comeback was canceled after one season, only to be resuscitated by HBO this year. Luckily, it outdoes pretty much all of its cringe-y predecessors (and most of the similar shows that came after it). Unlike Veep or Curb Your Enthusiasm or The Office or Extras, the point isn’t just that the protagonist (Lisa Kudrow’s Valerie Cherish) is unpleasant — or just that her inability to function in society makes you curl up in horror as though involuntarily mimicking the dents she’s creating in society’s fabric — it’s that a very specific, very insidious aspect of society is causally linked to, and perhaps even the root of, the character’s dysfunction.
It’s a tricky relationship between the viewer and the Valerie. When you’re laughing at Cherish, you’re laughing at someone’s struggle with a powerlessness rooted in her gender. Lisa Kudrow’s performance is uproariously funny, but behind each joke lies a vulnerable spot that our laughter, and the laughter her character anticipates targeting her on the show, strikes. Then that blow resonates, and makes her put her gaudy guard up even further, rendering her always a bit less human. She becomes a a mirror for the grosser aspects of Hollywood, notably, of course, the ways it loves to catapult women into obsolescence.
Season 2 kicks off with a DIY recap of everything that’s gone on in Valerie Cherish’s life since we last saw her. With a camera crew comprised of USC non-film students, she’s shooting a sample pitch for another reality TV show about her life (the first season, you’ll recall, was also one of these) — which, at the moment, seems highly un-noteworthy — for Bravo.
In the genius “here’s what you missed” anti-montage, the camera jerkily zooms in on her reel, which is playing on her laptop. In front of us, we see a procession of actors’ nightmares, all of which Cherish narrates proudly in her unique voice of nasal denial (Kudrow, as Cherish, launches her voice so far up her nose that it sounds like the voice itself is hiding from society behind the cartilage shield). We see her role in a student slasher film, which she calls an “independent” film. We see her infomercial, where she appears in front of a pile of indelicately chopped cantaloupes, promoting her line of strawberry-blonde hair dye, “Cherish Your Hair” — calling to mind so many other celebrities who, in falling from Hollywood’s favor, turn to product endorsement — and hilariously tries to act as an authority on the science behind the product: “It’s all about a special cantaloupe in France that holds the moisture in due to something in the seed.” And lastly, we see her attempt at appearing on another reality TV series, which leads to a Beverly Hills-lunchtime shouting match.
When Cherish gets a knock on her door from her publicist, informing her of an HBO show that’s being made about an “fictitious” actress — a certain Mallory Church, who bears an uncanny resemblance Valerie Cherish — it could be reason for worry (despite the fact that her current state of industry nonexistence would be turned into a “bad reputation,” which might not be such a bad thing). The creator/director of this hot HBO dramedy (within the HBO dramedy), it turns out, was a writer on Room and Bored, the sitcom Valerie acted in as the pastel tracksuit-sporting Aunt Sassy in the first season of The Comeback. If you watched Season 1, you know that she and this writer — Paulie G (Lance Barber) — had some artistic differences. And it won’t take long for you — or the characters — to realize that the whole premise of the HBO show is a takedown of Valerie Cherish, that it’s Paulie G’s skewed, misogynistic re-imagining of all of the turmoil (and all the heroin addictions) their tension brought about onset nine years ago. Naturally, Cherish ends up getting cast as Church. And so begins this weird, weird labyrinth of unflattering mirrors and hateful male gazes.
Another element of this particular season’s genius is its astoundingly detail-oriented handling of its dizzying meta-ness. It’s hard to imagine any show most simply described as an “HBO show about a reality show about an HBO show about a former sitcom and reality show” making any sense, or being anything but a live-action, strawberry-blonde Escher print. But it does, and it’s not! It makes so much perfect, seamless sense!
Especially as, by the third episode, you realize the extent to which The Comeback is playfully antagonizing HBO itself. This becomes wildly apparent as Valerie parades through the halls of their headquarters for the first time, having pictures of herself taken with posters from influential past shows. “The girls!” she exclaims, standing next to the Sex and the City ladies. She continues down the hall “The… new girls,” she says, now being photographed next to a Girls poster. It also plays with the notion of HBO getting bigger and bigger actors interested in its shows: Seth Rogen stars alongside Cherish in the dramedy as the character based on Paulie G — who, again, hates Mallory Church aka Valerie Cherish, and imagines forcing her to give him revenge blow-jobs, and fantasizes about idling outside her house with a shotgun, etc. Seth — the famous, beloved male actor, is given full license to ad-lib. Valerie is reprimanded for flubbing a single, interchangeable word. When she tries, thereafter, to do a bit of compensatory improvising, what comes out of her (character’s?) mouth is frighteningly telling: “It’s been a long day. Why don’t you just rape me?!”
Before shooting — just as a server might put on their apron before a shift — Cherish mentions that she’ll be “preparing for the role,” i.e. getting some work done on her face. The show’s team urges her against it, saying she’s one of the only actresses who “still looks real.” They’d like her to remain exactly as she is, but not for her benefit. The unflattering way they wish to depict her is quite apparent. The implication is, of course, that a woman in Hollywood has two options: look young, or look vilified.
The washed-up celebrity has been one of the most consistent themes in television and film this year: from this show to Doll & Em to Birdman to Maps to the Stars to The Clouds of Sils Maria, there’s been such a bounty that the commentary might seem dulled by its volume. But of all the downtrodden dying stars to grace this year’s screens, Valerie Cherish — with two seasons, nine years, and the boundless talent of Lisa Kudrow behind her — is guaranteed to be one of the most developed.
Unlike your typical dramedy of discomfort, this show isn’t getting its “dramedy” from the unlikable, alienated qualities of one character, but rather from a larger force: we’re laughing at and cringing at a woman who’s made laughable and cringe-worthy by a misogynist system, a system that humiliates those within it to such an extent that it fuels narcissistic anxiety, then humiliates the narcissists it’s created for that very narcissism, until it finally turns them into: