To paraphrase a line of Val’s from last week’s season premiere, well, I’m sad. And this could get messy.
I did not love last night’s episode of The Comeback. Did I like it? Yes. But that’s a big drop for a big-time Comeback fan like me, a downgrade from a love to a like — especially considering I can’t remember ever not loving an episode up to this point. Mainly I’m worried that we’re only two episodes into the second season, and already/suddenly, it feels like certain comedic premises are being recycled.
For example, this whole thing with Valerie not knowing the names of other (more famous) actors. In the “Val Vlog” (Valvalog? Vulvalodge? I had fun trying to decipher what, exactly, she was saying the first time I watched the episode), she does her Edith Bunker impression. This is something Val does a lot; last week, it was “That’s my Matthew McConaughey,” and last season, there was “That’s my Woody Allen” — and that was funny, but then Val blanked on who played Edith Bunker and had to pause her Val Vlog to go find out. Then, later on in the episode, she calls Lena Dunham “Leila Durham.” She also claims that Mad Men is on A&E, not AMC, and that Neil Diamond, not Barry Manilow, sang “Looks Like We Made It.”
I liked that beat where Val tried to cover the fact that it was she and not Mickey who incorrectly called Lena Leila, but my issue is that these are all basically the same joke. And while I believe that Val might confuse, say, Maureen and Jean Stapleton, as well as whether Diamond or Manilow sang “Looks Like We Made It” (something I myself might get wrong in an off-the-top-of-my-head moment), I also feel like Val would know the difference between AMC and A&E. We all know that Val lives in her own world, but part of me also believes that she’d be obsessed with those kinds of details because they make up the nitty-gritty of the rejection that has shaped who she is. AMC (or A&E, for that matter) represents a club she hasn’t been let into, a level of fame or prestige or just plain landing a gig that has mostly eluded her. Case in point: When Marky Mark asked her near the top of last night’s episode why she’d want to do Seeing Red, she replied, “It’s HBO, Mark. I’ll be an actress on an HBO show.”
I don’t mean to sound like I’m just trolling this episode of The Comeback, like I’m just trying to poke holes in its logic for the sake of it. And maybe I’m giving that part of Val’s personality, the addicted-to-showbiz part, too much credence vis-à-vis her self-serving cluelessness. This sort of stuff upsets me as a fan because what’s brilliant about The Comeback is how it’s created a fully realized, fully plausible, yet incredibly delicate milieu that is half Val’s tragically flawed worldview and half how she interacts with the real world. I thought Val’s story line with Mark this week was spot-on for just this reason. Clearly they’ve got some couples' therapy under their belts, given how she reminds him to disagree by referencing safe discussions and listening circles and hearing what you’re saying. Just as clearly, it’s nearly impossible for Val to converse by those rules herself because they require a degree of patience and selflessness she flat-out does not possess. (“Okay, then I’ll go.”)
I do completely believe that Val would forget Jane’s last name, as she did during her meeting with HBO. One, because I don’t recall her ever saying it in the first season. And two, because Jane was sort of an underling to Val, and it therefore makes perfect sense that Val would designate the bare-minimum number of brain cells to considering Jane as a full-fledged human being.
So now let’s talk about Jane. I love Jane as a pot-smoking, semi-off-the-grid-living, serious documentarian (all of which makes deliciously perfect sense) who is gay (which I did not see coming). Having said that, her scene went in a somewhat predictable way once it was established that she sought distribution for her latest documentary and needed money, but that didn’t bother me too much. Val’s line of “Did you answer and I missed it?” as she was leaving may have actually been the funniest line of the night for me, because it was both a surprising thing for her to say and acutely conveyed a type of desperation we’ve all felt at one point or another. (By the way, I have a theory as to why Val didn’t know that Jane had won an Oscar. I would bet that Val religiously watches every Oscar broadcast but vacates the couch during the awarding of the Documentary Short statuette for snack- and bathroom-time.)
Then came the Brad Goreski story line. Again, not to nitpick, but The Comeback kinda did a similar setup nine years ago, when Val wore a gown designed by Project Runway’s Jay McCarroll. “You know the drill … reality show,” Goreski said to Val when she didn’t want to come out in her Big Bird monstrosity. And that might be the problem: We do know the drill. We know how reality shows are sent up because The Comeback did it excellently nine years ago, plenty of sketch shows and sitcoms have done it since, and because reality TV pretty much parodies itself. One of the things I found marvelous about last week’s episode was that it somehow felt like the same old Comeback — really, it could’ve been a lost episode from the first season — yet felt just as fresh and humming with comedic tension as when the show debuted nine years ago. Whereas last night’s episode felt like, “Now we’re going to trot out this kind of joke, and then we’re going to do this premise you’ve probably seen before.”
Absolutely, I hold The Comeback to a very high standard. Even though its protagonist can have all the subtlety of a blunt object, I expect its humor to be sophisticated, and I expect the jokes to kind of creep up on me. Like how Val’s “prepared” hand gestures during her meeting with HBO literally crept up on her; the execs in the room watching her forced her to repeat the word prepare, with her hands moving ever-so-slightly closer to her currently un-Botoxed face, to get what she was saying. “You’re one of the few actresses who still looks real,” says the top HBO brass. (P.S.: I can’t believe I haven’t mentioned this yet, but: Carlos Jacott! Yay! Who else thinks Kicking and Screaming is the most criminally underappreciated movie of our time?) “That’s why we hired you.” There’s a certain authenticity I love about The Comeback as well, and I’m worried that in this episode, I didn’t get it.