Here are two ways of looking at this week's episode of The Comeback:
1. What was this episode about, exactly? It started immediately where we left off last week, outside Valerie’s trailer after blow-job shooting day. We find out that Seeing Red budget cuts have led to Mallory’s home scenes being axed, leading Valerie (who seemed to be weathering marginalized–Aunt Sassy flashbacks internally immediately after being told the news) to offer up her actual house for the shoot. But then the episode seemed to take a turn and be about Mickey’s cancer scare, and then, for a split second, it looked like maybe it was going to be about Paulie’s unabated passive-aggressiveness. But in the end, it was really about Val and Mark’s crumbling marriage, unless it was actually about that guy who shot himself in their Hollywood apartment complex. Also, there was a scene that took place at an improv class. On the whole, “Valerie Saves the Show” was a rather slapdash, slapstick-laden affair (cue the cheap and obvious visual butt-crack joke during the crew’s load-in for Mallory’s home scenes).
2. This episode was a laser-focused examination of Val’s narcissism and the slow-motion decay it’s causing in all aspects of her existence: her disconnected marriage, her parasitic relationship with Mickey (except, really, which one of them is more glommed onto and dependent on the other?), her painfully limited talents as an actress. Never underestimate The Comeback’s capacity for irony and metaphor; “Valerie Saves the Show” illustrated, through its pastiche of unrelated scenarios, how Val’s performativeness is like a mask that’s slowly suffocating her, even as she lives and dies by her own “the show must go on” clarion call.
Let’s start at Val’s Groundlings class, which was the episode’s silliest scene on the surface but astutely addressed the latter two areas of her sham of a life. Last week I wondered how much evidence we’d be allowed this season as to Val’s dramatic abilities or lack thereof. Even though Seeing Red has to be the meatiest project of her career, we still got only a few inconsequential bits of business: Valerie staring, Valerie walking, Valerie yelling at Paulie G’s alter ego. Ironically, it’s when Val mimes mining at improv that we finally receive not only indisputable proof that she is a bad actress, but the why behind it. Val is acting opposite another student assigned to play a candy-maker. After he informs her that he’s making taffy, she replies, “Well, I don’t know what kind of candy you’re making, but I’m a coal miner.” This was one of those classic Comeback funny-but-not-ha-ha-funny moments; I didn’t laugh out loud because I was too busy cringing inside. More important, Val flat-out doesn’t listen, which is not only a cardinal rule of improv but a pretty important life skill.
During an earlier exercise, Valerie scoffed and gave side-eye to Jane’s reality cameras after the teacher instructed the class to abruptly and nonsensically segue from climbing a ladder to sewing; she refused to stay in the moment (another cardinal rule of acting) because committing to a scene (or her craft) is not as important to her as the avoidance of doing something embarrassing. She isn’t an actor at all; she is only a performer, onstage or in front of a camera only for what it allows her to believe about herself as a person.
(While watching this scene, I’m sure I’m not the only one who mentally referenced The Office’s improv-class episode, in which Steve Carell’s Michael Scott proved to be a much more dedicated troupe player than Val, if self-involved and misguided in his own way.)
During a break, we find out — only after Val laments that Mickey excused himself from the classroom, denying Jane “someone to cut to” to help underscore “how great I am at improv” — that Mickey is waiting on some possibly cancerous test results. This precipitates another Comeback trademark: bizarro ambiguity (like the giddy-yet-unreadable expression on Val’s face last week as it rested in Seth Rogen’s lap). Back in class, Val weirdly fixates on Mickey’s news by making two awful jokes about cancer. “Only two reasons to be out of work: bad economy or cancer. You have cancer?” is the jaw-dropping first one, followed by, “What sign are you, Cancer?” Is Val genuinely concerned about Mickey but unable to express that, or is she somehow trying to pull focus away from Mickey and his attention-getting problems, belittling his predicament in the process? Is it both? I’ve got to optimistically think it’s both, because if Val really doesn’t have a shred of potential for sympathy, it makes me question why I’m watching her at all.
The other scene we of course have to talk about is at Val and Mark’s shady apartment complex, where the couple retreats to in order to escape Val’s show-business life encroaching on their home life. Instead, life itself seems to encroach on them and their marriage, as they’re harangued by a disgruntled tenant/super and then, in the most bizarre narrative non-sequitur of the entire series, discover that another tenant has just shot himself to death in one of the units. “Some things are just not funny,” the improv teacher warned Valerie earlier in the episode. I think maybe Suicide Guy was meant to be one of those things, just as I think the most bizarro/ambiguous line of the whole series may be Mark reacting to the sight of the dead guy by turning to Val and saying, “Are you happy now?” I admit I’m still not entirely sure what Mark meant by that, and I’m happy not to know, because chewing over The Comeback in my head has been one of my favorite mental activities of the past few weeks. So, let’s walk back Mark’s remark: He’s blaming Val for a stranger’s suicide, perhaps even implying that she draws some amount of satisfaction from it. Or, in the heat of the moment, he wants to draw a consequential through-line between Val’s decision to give up their house and this guy’s decision to off himself. Broken down like that, I fear that Mark might actually overtake Tyler as supreme douchebag of this episode. (P.S.: Don’t you find it interesting that Kudrow has a son who’s around 18 or so?)
The cops who arrive on the scene note that people who’ve been through rehab usually take a dive, taking down “anybody who’s around them.” The reference to Paulie G. — not only a rehab vet, but one whose fictitious alter-ego is currently sitting in front of her house with a gun on the seat next to him — isn’t lost on Val, whose ears seem to perk up as she makes the connection. And I think an iota of genuine concern for him may have even flashed across her face, permeating through her mask and reminding me that I never waste my time watching Val.
The Comeback’s Best Comebacks
Val’s scene partner: “Seamus.”
Val: “Funny already, isn’t it?”
Mickey: “Six?! I was hoping to get to 26.”
Line-Producer Ron: “Twenty-six? This isn’t The Rockford Files.”
Mickey: “No! It isn’t!” (And then that lingering hold on Mickey’s face; priceless!)
Val: “Valerie Cherish.”
Improv teacher: “Right, you said that!”
Val: “Oh, you ate a full meal! Here’s a trophy for you!” (A nine-year callback to Val’s stepdaughter Francesca, absent so far this season, but known during the first season as being “not an eater.”)