Watching HBO’s The Comeback Remains a Squirm-Inducing Experience

Photo: John P. Johnson/HBO

The Comeback is best watched from behind a doorframe or large item of furniture, so that you can hide from the show if you need to.

The second season of this faux-reality series about the misadventures of sitcom star Valerie Cherish (Lisa Kudrow) injects the oft-misapplied adjective “uncompromising” with corrosive new life. Created by former Friends star Kudrow and Sex and the City’s Michael Patrick King, this new batch of episodes is as savage and formally rigorous as season one’s, which aired in 2005 — perhaps more so. Aping both the chaotic visuals and the rubbernecking mentality of an unscripted reality-TV series in every scene and shot, and capturing a rainbow spectrum of vanity, delusion, and petty cruelty in the process, The Comeback never takes dramatic or aesthetic shortcuts that make things easier on the characters, or the viewers. The camera’s always in the right (or wrong) place to capture the humiliations that showbiz types inflict. And unlike the performers in the new sitcom Valerie stars in, The Comeback doesn’t bend over backwards — or lift a finger, for that matter — in the name of making anybody seem lovable. Or likable.

About that new sitcom: It’s called Seeing Red. It’s a laugh-trackless, “edgy” HBO comedy. It’s created by Paulie G (Lance Barber), whom fans of season one will remember as the head writer of Room and Bored, which co-starred our heroine. Valerie, formerly a dippy-hot leading lady, hoped Paulie G.’s show would rejuvenate her career (though she was never happy playing a supposedly sexless supporting character whose killjoy catchphrase was, “I don’t need to see that!”); but it ended up getting canceled, sinking the careers of all involved. Paulie G. has joined a long list of onetime sitcom writers mining their misfortune for black-comedy gold: Seeing Red is a TV-MA score-settler, about a sitcom creator based on Paulie G. (and played by Seth Rogen) who grapples with a heroin addiction while battling with Mallory Parish, a monstrously narcissistic control-freak redhead based, of course, on you-know-who.

The Comeback could have had a lot of postmodern fun watching Valerie try to prevent or revise a sitcom that mined her own career misfortune, but it goes a step further by having her audition for Seeing Red and land a gig playing — well, everyone involved with the sitcom, including Valerie, keeps saying the character is “based” on Valerie, or is a “fictional version” of Valerie, but that’s not entirely right. The character is Paulie G’s poor-me fantasy of Valerie, the bitch who ruined his life: a ditzy, soul-eating vampire who incarnates every sexist impulse that has ever poisoned a comic’s imagination. Paulie imagines his fictional alter ego humiliating “Mallory” virtually and actually, in dramatic interactions and in dreams, mostly emotionally but in one case sexually. It’s ugly, ugly stuff, but it’ll ring true not just to anyone who’s worked in show business but anyone who’s ever been at the mercy of a boss who only wants to feed his ego and avenge exaggerated — and at probably half-imagined — hurts.

Is The Comeback funny? That’s a valid question, especially if you’ve never seen any of season one. I think it is funny, but only if you accept that there are different varieties of laughter, and one of them is the sad-ghastly chuckle of a person who’s grateful not to be stuck in situations like the ones onscreen — or be depicted by the likes of Kudrow and King and their writers: social satirists who don’t cut anyone any breaks. Seriously: The Comeback didn’t fail to find a big audience the first time around because it was bad (it was brilliant), but because it offered a vision of show business (and America generally) so snake-pit-vicious that watching it was a squirm-inducing experience.

At the center of its vision was a specific kind of masochism, born in an artist’s vanity. Valerie, like a lot of performers, is an attention junkie. She was suffering withdrawal symptoms during a career lull; she needed a fix and tried to get it by taking a role she believed (correctly) was beneath her, and recording the experience with a reality-show crew that she’d hired herself. (Paulie G.’s smack habit literalizes the idea of fame as addictive substance.) She’s still craving a fix, and because she’s ten years older now (in an industry that thought she was an unemployable crone in 2005), she’s willing to dive even deeper into the abyss of humiliation to get what she craves. She visits HBO headquarters in Sunday’s pilot intending to serve them with a cease-and-desist order, but ends up auditioning for the show instead. She caves so quickly that we wonder if she went there secretly hoping to be offered a role, and no matter how horrible the experience of Seeing Red becomes, she can’t quit, because some part of her is still fantasizing that she can claw her way to the top again, provided she can endure the abuse she’s suffering on her way back up. (One of the show’s more astute observations is that, when you’re talking about actresses, words like brave and real are code for “looks her age” or “is willing to be humiliated on-camera.”)

To greater or lesser degrees, everyone on The Comeback is subject to this self-abasing impulse. Valerie’s kindhearted husband Mark (Damian Young)* balks at letting the crew film in their house until he learns that Seth Rogen is the show’s star. Valerie’s former producer Jane Benson (Laura Silverman) won an Oscar for Best Documentary Short Film (a film about lesbians in Treblinka) but now proclaims that her award, and everything else related to show business, is “worthless.” Yet she comes back to produce Valerie’s new show almost immediately. Paulie G., who’s being groomed by HBO publicity as a Philip Roth of sitcoms, is showing audiences the ugliest parts of his mind, and creatively he's mediocre; he’s chasing Louis C.K.’s shadow but seems more likely to end up being the next Robert Wuhl or Mike Binder. (The new Comeback is also the sharpest self-critique HBO has ever aired, portraying it as a cable channel that indulges the laziest clichés of edginess, tolerates crudely sexist imagery in the name of buzz, and treats the New York Times as its unofficial second PR department.) Throughout, The Comeback nourishes running jokes about American showbiz narcissism that seem sadder and more brutally astute by the week, such as people's tendencies to forget the names of those who work below them, or never learn them in the first place.  

The show’s insular world seems even shabbier this time out than it did in 2005. The sense of decline even extends to the production values of Valerie’s new reality program: It’s being shot, lit, sound-recorded, and edited by film students who were in elementary school when the original The Comeback aired, and who have the unfortunate tendency to miss dramatic visual moments with their wildly swinging cameras, and accidentally jam boom poles through venetian blinds. The show becomes more agonizing to watch, and on more levels, with each scene. The cruelty of Hollywood, incarnated by Paulie G., is exceeded only by Valerie’s willingness to tolerate it for celebrity’s sake.  When Paulie G. calls Val a “monster,” he’s right, in a sense: Like everyone else on this series, she’s a monster of narcissism. The beast must be fed.

* This review previously misidentified Valerie's husband.