We have all experienced the tiny personal tragedy of falling hopelessly in love with an exquisite show that never catches on and gets the guillotine after only one season. Subsequently, we have all daydreamed about what that show would’ve been like had it been allowed to live: where the most gripping plotlines would’ve gone, how our favorite characters would’ve changed, and — if we’re completely honest with ourselves — how much longer the show would’ve sustained its excellence until it inevitably faltered and sputtered.
Nine long years after its lone season, The Comeback has been granted just such an unlikely resurrection. It was a show that nobody watched that was somehow never fully forgotten, and now that it’s back, it’s as it never left. Amazingly, it is still so, so, so, so good.
I discovered The Comeback in its first iteration during a particularly depressive period of my life when I was hiding in my apartment for long stretches and plowing through anything my HBO On Demand offered. (I was also tending bar at night, which I think was why I didn’t watch it during its original airtime.) This show, which trafficked in the dark humors of cruelty, vindictiveness, petty jealousies, and grand self-delusions, delighted me like nothing else in my life. Why does The Comeback make my heart sing? Maybe I love how it lampoons disingenuousness, how it’s not at all about the silly things its characters discuss. To me, The Comeback has always been about the large, messy chunks of the human condition that hide under all the glossy nothingness going on in our lives. It’s turning over a really pretty rock and finding nothing but slugs, and that thrills me.
Honestly, I don’t know exactly why I love it so much — I’ve always said that it’s one of those shows that you either completely and totally get, or else you don’t — but it has made my heart sing from the very beginning, from that very first shot of the test-pattern color bars and their accompanying high-pitched tone, together serving as a de facto sort of opening-credits sequence.
So when The Comeback came back last night and opened with that same annoying squeal, oh my, did I ever squeal as well.
“They don’t use that sound anymore,” Lisa Kudrow’s Valerie Cherish is informed by one of the postpubescent twerps she’s recruited to help her film a pitch to bring back The Comeback. That sentence is one of several cues dropped rapid-fire within the first few minutes of the second-season premiere to remind us about what happened nine years ago and to fill us in on what’s going on now. Let me try to do this succinct justice: Former sitcom actress Lisa Kudrow stars in HBO’s The Comeback as former sitcom actress Valerie Cherish, who came back to TV in 2005 with two gigs, a hackneyed sitcom called Room and Bored; and a behind-the-scenes reality show about Cherish’s TV comeback that, like Kudrow’s real-life show, was called The Comeback. The first season of the real-life Comeback culminated in the renewal of the show-within-a-show Comeback, but in real life, The Comeback (the one on HBO) was canceled. Last night, we learned that Room and Bored writer Paulie G was on smack (not surprising) at the time, which led to the demise of both the sitcom and, consequently, Val’s reality show. Now Paulie’s written an HBO dramedy (“that’s a comedy without the laughs,” Val notes) about his loathsome relationship with Val called Seeing Red.
As a super-devoted Comeback fan, I always felt like saying the show got canceled because it was ahead of its time was just a cheap platitude. But as Cherish and her college-aged crew scroll through footage from the D-list career she’s endured since, including a CSI knockoff (natch) and an infomercial for a redhead hair-care line (“It’s all about a special cantaloupe in France that holds the moisture in due to something in the seeds”), it’s clear that Kudrow and Comeback co-creator Michael Patrick King, who also directed this episode and co-wrote it with Kudrow, want it made plain that they agree with that claim entirely. Cherish pointedly calls Bethenny Frankel “skinny margarita gal” — or what I should say is, Kudrow delivers that line pointedly while Cherish says it, as she says and does most everything, from deep within a fogbank of insecurity and disdain. Cherish is then shown quitting Real Housewives of Beverly Hills after producers try goading her one too many times into catfighting with Lisa Vanderpump (ha!), insisting to an off-camera Andy Cohen, “It’s not Housewives of New York; this isn’t gonna last.” When I think of the expression “funny on so many levels,” I think of two shows: Arrested Development and this one.
There were a lot of parallels between this episode and the first-season pilot. There was the introduction (or reintroduction) of the rest of the main cast, of course. Val’s ever-patient hairdresser Mickey is by her side from the first frame, of course, and hey, there’s Marky Mark! And hey, Val still has the same housekeeper and the same publicist! (The latter is Scandal’s Dan Bucatinsky, who also executive-produces here.) Some of you may remember that the original pilot featured cameos from Kim Fields and Marilu Henner as Cherish’s competition for the Aunt Sassy role on Room and Bored; last night, we were treated to a litany of reality-TV celebs, from Top Chef’s Carla Hall (so cute! love her!) to RuPaul to Cohen himself.
First-season-premiere Val was naïve to the sausage-making of reality TV, yet was willing to do anything asked of her to be put in front of a camera again. Second-season-premiere Val, perhaps even more sadly, isn’t naive, but she’s just as (or possibly even more) willing. Was it any surprise that Kudrow’s first line last night was, “Gotta have a camera on me,” uttered in that flat, nasally voice of Val’s? No, but it was a surprise when Val later cornered Cohen, her former Real Housewives boss, and whispered into his ear, “I get it now, okay? I took myself too seriously, you know? I didn’t know I was playing a character; I thought it was me.” Because Val is never not playing a character — a people-pleasing, validation-craving shape-shifter is who she is, truly — and the fact that she’s now in on the sausage-making makes her more tragic than ever. You may have noticed that after Val and Mickey run into new A-lister Juna, the Room and Bored ingenue played with perfectly ethereal ditziness by Malin Akerman, Val comments, “You never know what filming opportunities life may present you with.” Note to self: After nine years of rooting for Val to find her true self, I don’t need to see that!
And then, in a scene that hit me like a ton of bricks, it seems Kudrow and King heard the voices inside my head while writing this damn-near perfect episode and gave Val one of her rare, sparkling opportunities to be authentic, to speak what she’s really, really feeling all the way down by, of course, giving her a Seeing Red script to cold-read in front of a bunch of HBO execs. “According to HBO, I’m an amazing dramatic actress,” said Cherish — although that time, I think the one who was really talking was Kudrow herself.