The Comeback Recap: But Can She Act?

Photo: HBO
The Comeback
Episode Title
Valerie Is Brought to Her Knees
Editor’s Rating

A new theory: The Comeback was being meta in its first episode of the season, when Valerie Cherish remarked, hilariously, that a dramedy is a comedy without the laughs. Because as of last night, that’s what I’m convinced we now have on our hands. To me, the episode was riddled with near-the-edge-of-your-seat comedic tension, yet to my surprise, I barely released an actual LOL.

To be fair, I think I did emit a giggle at the words smell-o-vision and washcloth (as in, Mickey thinks Val’s trailer smells like a “rancid” one) during the opening scene. Mostly because I just think those words are funny. Then up to the door of Val’s trailer came the first AD (“Shay …”), her personality a weird and almost transfixing hybrid of politeness and über-efficiency, and the line producer in his wheelchair (or, as Val’s wig placer called it, his “cart”), and I could feel that shoulder-hunching sense of … well, nervousness, almost. I get butterflies in my stomach when I watch this show, reveling in the sense that something dreadfully droll is about to happen. The only time that tension got deflated last night was when The Comeback made that visual joke when Mickey brought in Valerie’s identical “Mallory” wig. You could see that one coming a mile away, no?

Anyway, let’s drill down to the roots of all that “dramedic” tension. First, there’s the simmering, passive-aggressive war of words between Val and Paulie, starting with Val remarking in her trailer that the Seeing Red crew jackets are adorned with a needle “because he’s a heroin addict.” The slow build continued with Val’s first-show gift to Paulie, meant to hold “your scripts and things — not drugs.” On that one, though, I got the sense that Val was being genuine, more the concerned doter who really wants this guy to stay away from drugs than just an in-your-face troll. I also felt she was being genuine during her private talk with Paulie moments later; she seemed grateful and relieved that Paulie wanted a “fresh start.” (I’m sure you all noted that their confab mirrored the one between Val and James Burrows in the first season, with Jane managing to capture both on tape.) But immediately following, Paulie treats Val’s question about a line delivery like a supreme annoyance, which to me indicates that his idea of a “fresh start” is for Val to shut up (plus, don’t actors ask directors questions like that sometimes?). Meanwhile, Val jokes to her reality cameras that all writers like their words just so, “even those hooked on heroin.”

This, of course, all finally spills over during shooting, where Val is told via the script supervisor (My So-Called Life creator Winnie Holtzman!!!) that she messed up her line reading; soon after, Paulie’s impatience with and resentment toward Val finally get the best of him when he bellows, “She never blew me!” Paulie is ten times more loathsome than he was the first time around, when he was a lesser character. I do wonder where the heck his dynamic vis-à-vis Val will head this season. Hopefully not to more puking.

Another reason my inner jitters kept escalating was because we finally got a glimpse into something we’ve all wondered about for nine long years: Can Valerie Cherish actually act? During the first season of The Comeback, when all Val had to do was execute the timeworn beats of Room and Bored’s unfunny punch lines, it was an irrelevant question, but last night, we got a few snippets to help us start deciding how to answer it. First of all, I loved that so many of Val and Seth Rogen’s scenes together (I’ll get to Rogen in a second) were framed in those side-by-side viewing screens, allowing us to easily hone in on both of their faces. I found myself almost feverishly comparing their performances for clues to Val’s acting prowess or lack thereof. (Side note: The two faces side by side also reminded me of Lisa Kudrow’s Web Therapy.) Based on the three Seeing Red scenes Val shot during last night’s episode, it’s still hard to say how much of a thespian she is; all she had to do was yell, stand still (which she still couldn’t do without talking out the side of her mouth for a second), and walk across a room.

To me, the most telling detail came after she’d done the stand-between-two-naked-chicks shot, when she told Mickey, “That was hell. That’s where I was.” Because it didn’t seem like she was talking about where she found her motivation for the scene. It seemed more like she felt very put out. Clearly, a key issue (at least so far) is that Val has only performed shallow roles in shallow projects. Case in point, and perhaps Val’s funniest line of the episode: “Actors are frequently asked to step outside their comfort zone. One time I had to play a brunette with migraines.”

And then there’s Seth Rogen, whose immediate kindness and affection toward Val begs a very interesting question about this show: Why are the huge Hollywood stars the nicest people on it? Some people have brought this up about Malin Akerman’s Juna, but I always felt like her fondness for Val was justified for several reasons, including (a) the fact that Juna wasn’t global-box-office-gold famous when she and Val met, and (b) that Juna needed a mother figure on the set of her very first acting job. But now we have Rogen, already established as one of the biggest stars on the planet, giving her a just-between-us nickname five minutes after meeting her. Are the most famous people so utterly nice just to undermine our expectations as viewers? Or is Kudrow trying to make a point about fame — perhaps her fame as a former Friend and the assumptions people make about her because of it?

The fact that Rogen (who I think played himself exactly as one would expect, which was fine and funny, if a bit pat) managed to get Val out of doing the blow-job scene was, to me, more about being a good co-star than a good friend. From the way she stifled a laugh during the end credits, Val doesn’t necessarily feel that way. Or maybe she was likewise just enjoying the moment’s dramedic tension.