With five episodes down, it’s safe to say that this season of The Comeback is not your circa 2005 season of The Comeback. Whereas the first season was a perfectly self-contained floating island of hilarity — something I remember not in specifics and details but in grand, sweeping, warm-fuzzy feelings — every episode this season has felt stand-alone and somehow apart from the others in subtext, if not also in comedic tone. I’ve talked a lot in my recaps about how much a particular episode did or didn’t make me laugh or, in true Comeback style, made me laugh on the inside while I cringed or held my breath on the outside. While watching “Valerie Is Taken Seriously,” I spent maybe six seconds actually laughing (internally, externally, any which way). The rest of the time, I was too busy gasping at the latest plot twist (the New York Times reporter has seen the show — gasp! It’s Tom — gasp!) and then ruminating on how those events fit into the larger points Lisa Kudrow and Michael Patrick King were trying to make this time around. I loved this episode precisely because it wasn’t so much funny-ha-ha as funny-hmm.
If I had written a paper on “Valerie Is Taken Seriously” for one of my old film-analysis courses in college (and believe you me, if this show had been around in the '90s, that’s exactly what I would have done), I would’ve titled said paper something like “Light Motif” or “The Unbearable Lightness of Being … in Showbiz.” The use of light — as a word, as a prop, as a point of discussion, and as a cinematographic way to tell this story — was omnipresent, starting with the return of Valerie’s first-season confessional setup, with that glaring cobalt backdrop that Jane spent hours rigging, as she pointedly tells Val. Not coincidentally, Val mentions during this confessional that she’s about to shoot scenes for Seeing Red that take place on her old Room & Bored set. “Back to my comfort zone,” she says. “Back to where I actually know what I’m doing, thank God.” There’s a certain way Val sees herself, a certain favorable light she likes to cast herself in, and here’s the episode that starts to illuminate a different side of Val — the side that is a convincing actress, that is a person of depth.
Exposing the underbellies of people’s characters — their dark sides, the sides they try to keep hidden from the light — is terrifying. Paulie G. describes succinctly why when he bellows at Val, “You’re the monster, Val. You don’t have to do anything because you’re the monster.” Val is one of three characters whose monster side got put up to the light last night; in her mind, that means being made to look physically unappealing on camera. Just as her fears start to manifest when she’s made to wear that green-screen unitard, Paulie’s monster starts to come out when (as Val and her reality cameras see) he begins to drown in a deluge of soda and candy, crutches to ward off his addiction. And then there’s publicist Billy, whose meltdown gives voice to that fear and embarrassment lurking underneath our shiny, sunny exteriors. “Some bullshit happens and I get shut down,” he sobs. “I don’t want to be a fucking failure. Admit it, Valerie, you’re just going to fire me eventually anyway, so just do it now.” A moment after he storms out of Val’s trailer, he returns sheepishly. “I left my cell phone in here,” he mumbles. “I can’t even fucking quit right. Billy half-ass.” (That beat definitely got a laugh from me.) Oh, also, the HBO flack who steals Billy’s interview-setting-up thunder has black-and-white hair. Undergraduate me feels compelled to point out that the man who stole the spotlight from Billy visually signifies the complete absorption of all light and color. Meanwhile, Val describes Billy’s meltdown by saying he “flew too close to the sun.”
While Billy soon recomposes himself, Paulie and Val continue to stare down their dark sides. Val sneakily watches her Seeing Red dailies, in which she literally gives voice to Paulie’s darkest self-loathing: “Because you hate yourself, and guess what? I’m your way out and you’re too fucking stupid to even know it.” The fact that she does so in what’s easily her best piece of acting since her Seeing Red cold-read is something Val is blind to, even when sweet Mickey (who I think is becoming Val’s exterior conscience more and more with every episode) coos, “Red, all these years, you can really act.” All Val can see is that her performance isn’t well lit, making her look physically unappealing. “They pushed me into that. There wasn’t enough light,” she complains. “People aren’t going to want to see me like that.”
(I know I’ve talked a lot in my previous recaps about whether or not Val can act. After this episode, my new theory is that she can, but only when pushed. She notes that this piece of Seeing Red footage came on the 12th take; similarly, her cold-read was devastating exactly because she was caught off-guard by it. Compare those to the awful performativeness of her improv class last week. It’s really ingenious how The Comeback is set up so that Val is asked to do very little actual acting.)
By the time Paulie and Tom’s inner demons rear their ugly heads — Paulie when he seethes that Val is practically jamming a needle full of heroin in his arm, Tom when he rails against the fact that his career has gone nowhere while people keep making excuses for Paulie -- The Comeback may as well have been American Horror Story. It started to feel, in a deliciously dreadful and suspenseful way, like I didn’t know when or how the episode could get any darker. That’s when Val’s darkest fears are finally manifested, when Jane informs her (in one of the show’s awesome meta moments) that HBO “thinks that there’s a really interesting angle about you and the obstacles that you’re facing, in particular with this role, your career, your family.” The cinematography changes here; just as Jane explains, it goes from looking like cheaply produced, tacky-looking behind-the-scenes footage to a “real documentary.” Val storms off when her demand for “a few more lights” is rebuffed; she marches outside, into a blinding light, then chases down Liz at her car. “I think people are going to see you in a whole new light,” Liz says when Val asks why she called her performance “brave.” “You were exposing the inner part of yourself in a very surprising and compelling way. Surely you must have been aware of what you were doing.” Surely Kudrow and King are, and I can’t wait to see what they do next week.
The Comeback’s Best Comebacks
- Val: “Remember when the ozone was an issue? We’ve moved on to global warning.” (Help me out: Did she say “warning” or “warming?” I watched this moment three times and thought it was the former.)
- Val: “Shauna?” Shayna: “Shayna.”
- Val: “Dax — oh, is that the crew guy with the kilt?”
- Val: “Well — first AD and DVD commentary!”
- Mickey: “Why do they make their crosswords so hard? What are they trying to prove?”
- Val: “Hopefully that’s all done in post because I just had lunch.”
- Tom: “I have no points on Nicky Nicky Nack Nack. Five years as executive producer and I have no points.” (This isn’t really a good one-liner, but I decided to add it here for two reasons: One, that scene with Tom was just so good and that needed to be said. Two, a question: Does “points” mean, like, equity in the show, like a cut of the profits? That was my understanding.)
- Val: “I don’t know what they’re going to have me do for an encore. Eat Santa Claus?”