First Time Watch: HBO’s “The Comeback” (2005-2014)

By Christian DiMartino

Demi Lovato announced earlier this week that she is switching back to her “she/her” pronouns, as opposed to when she announced she was going to be going by “they/them.” This stands out to me for a few reasons. One is that this information was actually reported by news outlets. Another is that Lovato felt the need to make this information public, so then we all knew about it (she made her previous pronoun announcement a big deal, too). Another is, well, besides her last announcement, when was the last time anyone actually had a conversation about Demi Lovato? Look, everyone has the right to publicize their lives, and everyone is entitled to be who they want to be. Yet hearing this news, I kind of couldn’t help but feel like Lovato HAD to broadcast this ever-riveting information by means of regaining relevance. This right here is the beauty of Lisa Kudrow and Michael Patrick King’s HBO series The Comeback.

I’ve been watching King’s Sex and the City on and off, but felt the need to juggle The Comeback as well after hearing Kudrow and both Conan O’Brien and Bill Maher talk about it on their podcasts. I had some awareness of it, but wasn’t fully expecting it to wow me in the way that it did. It really blew me away because it’s not only pretty funny (while also being horribly uncomfortable at times), but it’s a show that is way ahead of its time. Which must explain its abrupt cancellation: we simply weren’t ready.

The show had a pretty interesting run. Kudrow had just finished Friends, King had just finished Sex and the City, and The Comeback ran for 13 episodes. Truth is, watching that first season… you can kind of understand why people didn’t fully know what to make of it. There are moments in The Comeback that are so disastrously awkward that I wasn’t fully sure if I was supposed to be laughing, but I did. Alas, the show was cancelled after the first season, with mixed reviews and reportedly low ratings… but it still managed to get Emmy nominations for Kudrow and King. And over time, there was a cult audience that lobbied for this show just enough for it to be revived for a second season in 2014.

The show, in its first season, revolves around an actress named Valerie Cherish (Kudrow), a B-lister who was on a sitcom in the 90’s called I’m It. In ways, she has sort of let that title get to her head- not that she’s necessarily an egomaniac, but she makes her return to television a bigger event than it probably is (she also, in conversations, refers to the show as “It”). Valerie is making her return to television with a show called Room and Bored, which, to be frank, looks rather awful. To chronicle this momentous event though, she is also starring in a reality series called The Comeback, which will chronicle her life and her triumphant return to the small screen.

In her corner is her husband Mark (Damian Young), who loves her but also senses that she is a bit too into this. As well as her very flamboyant hairdresser Mickey (the late Robert Michael Morris, wonderful), who is essentially her hype man. The cast of Room and Bored also appear to respect her, in particular her lead co-star Juna (Malin Akerman, before making it big). You could also consider the director of The Comeback, Jane (Laura Silverman, sister of Sarah), on her side too, because in Valerie’s worst moments, Jane seems to have compassion for her.

But… just about everyone else, particularly the crew of Room and Bored but basically just society at large, has anything but respect for her. In particular, the show’s head writer Paulie G (Lance Barber, slimy perfection). Valerie tries speaking to him on multiple occasions, and he doesn’t even mutter a syllable. He like many of the people surrounding her could care less about her, and have no trouble telling this information to her face. What’s remarkable about Valerie though is that she mostly just takes it; she smiles, nods, and just carries on like nothing is wrong, without defending herself in any way. You can see through Kudrow’s performance though that it must be hurting her to be treated with such disrespect, but, why? What is keeping this person going?

All of this is entertaining, often really funny, but at times hard to watch, and because of our affection for Kudrow, we root for her but we also want to shake her and tell her to get the hell out of there. But why doesn’t she? At about maybe the 7th episode of The Comeback though, all of the pieces clicked into place. Nobody has respect for Valerie because how could you have respect for someone who doesn’t really respect themselves? This is a person so determined to remain in the spotlight that she will digest as much verbal abuse as humanly possible, before reaching her breaking point (which she eventually does).

As much as I enjoyed this first season (sometimes I really do just enjoy a good cringe), I really wonder where Kudrow and King would’ve taken the story had it they been renewed for a second season immediately. Because in a way, picking the show up 9 years later really works to the show’s benefit. I won’t discuss just where it goes, necessarily, but I’ll say that in ways, the passage of time is on the show’s side, and it works wonders. The second season is shorter, but it’s better. It’s almost like a culmination of the ideas first introduced in the first season, but by means of giving us a slow burn, it really simmers and becomes something kind of beautiful and fully convincing. By the end of it, I was really knocked out by it and the show itself.

I was also, gotta say, knocked out by Kudrow, who gives what is perhaps her greatest performance here. I love her on Friends, and particularly in Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, but this character is just so fascinating and juicy. In ways, we can understand why Paulie G. would absolutely despise her- she has a level of narcissism that is subtle but still detectable, and she’s one of those people that, depending on who you are, might rub you the wrong way with her enthusiasm. Valerie Cherish does crave attention, at times so desperately, that it could be seen as off-putting. The magic of Kudrow’s performance though is that she puts all of Valerie’s obvious flaws on display, yet even when we might want to smack her, we can’t help but root for her. Not just because of our affection for Kudrow, but because Valerie is a fully fleshed human being. Despite her constant smiling and nodding, Kudrow shows us shades of a woman who is undeniably happy to be there, but also visibly bothered by what’s happening around her. But fame is fame and Valerie can’t help but get in the way of herself, even if she’s choosing to throw her own self-respect to the side. Everyone in this show is uniformly great, but Kudrow is sensational.

As mentioned above, there is a hive of people who truly love this show. You can tell that Kudrow does as well, and, despite what a mess Valerie Cherish might be, you can tell that the show loves her, too. I can now proudly join that hive. The Comeback is pretty brilliant and way ahead of its time; the discomfort of watching this character suffer was probably a lot to handle in 2005, but in 2022, with the way social media is and Tik tok and yada yada, this show has aged gracefully. The world has caught up with the Valerie Cherish’s, and the show’s commentary and skewering of fame and the business is spot-on.

Kudrow and King have expressed in multiple interviews that they would be on board with bringing this show back for a third season. After seeing the show in its current entirety, I’m at two minds about it. Because on one hand, I’d love to see where Valerie Cherish has ended up, and they could easily concoct something in 2024, a la Richard Linklater’s Before Trilogy– the landscape has changed even more since we last saw her, so there’s room for opportunity. On the other hand, the finale of season 2 has got to be among the best finales I’ve ever seen. Kudrow and King closed the book on Valerie while also leaving it wide open, in a finale that is heartfelt, funny, and deeply satisfying. If they make more of The Comeback, I too will come back. If not though, Kudrow and King went out on a fabulous note.

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