In early December, as TV critics shared their picks for the best shows of the decade, BoJack Horseman creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg leapt into the debate with a tweet: “If no one else will say it I will: The best TV show of the decade was The Comeback season two. Flawless run cover-to-cover, high highs, no lows.” (A few weeks later, Vulture named The Comeback and BoJack as two of the decade’s indisputable classics. Game recognize game.)
The first season of Michael Patrick King and Lisa Kudrow’s short-lived HBO mockumentary, which originally aired in 2005, was cultishly beloved for Kudrow’s unflinching portrayal of Valerie Cherish, a B-list sitcom actor who marries the cringe comedy of Larry David with the complicated depth of Amy Jellicoe. The second season, which aired on HBO nine years later in 2014, managed to improve on the brilliant formula even more — so much so that Bob-Waksberg considers it the “biggest singular influence” on BoJack Horseman. Like Kudrow’s BoJack character Wanda, an owl who was comatose for the last 30 years of pop culture, Valerie Cherish is a person out of time, floundering to stay current in an ever-changing industry.
So stop the presses! Halt the discourse! There’s still [checks What Time Is It Right Now] a few more hours until the decade is officially over, and we’re not letting this Best Of debate stop yet. Below, Raphael Bob-Waksberg makes his case for The Comeback season two as the best show of the 2010s.
Whenever I talk about how good season two of The Comeback is, people ask, “Do I have to see season one?” And I say, “You get to see season one.” But I can’t think of another relaunched show that comes back better than when it went away. Season two is so canny about the world we live in now — or, I guess, in 2014. The way it talked about sexism on set, abusive showrunners, auteurist television, and the respect that is given to the appearance of prestige, those are certainly issues that seem more relevant now.
The Comeback is so cringey and difficult, but watching it, what I was really struck with was the kindness and the generosity. There are these small moments of Valerie just doing something nice for somebody, or someone offering Valerie a kindness. When I think of the show, I think about the cruelty of the world and the industry. But what’s remarkable is these small patches of kindness that burst through like grass in the cracks in the sidewalk. Humanity finds a way. There’s a lot of humanity in it that you don’t notice at first, because it does feel so bleak and so mean.
I think about this show a lot. When The Comeback was first canceled, one of the lines that I remember seeing about it was: “What’s so interesting about this show and this character is it’s a kind of character that you’ve seen men play before, but it feels different when it’s a woman.” Maybe it’s harder for some audiences to accept these faults in a woman, or be this quote-unquote “unlikable” the way that you would accept it in a man, like a Larry David or a David Brent. But I actually think that’s not giving enough credit to The Comeback — or Enlightened, which I think does a very similar thing and also does it incredibly well — because I’ve never seen a male character that is as fully realized as these two women. When you watch Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm, yeah, he’s obnoxious and he’s hilarious, but he never makes you feel anything. Michael Scott and the American Office, that comes a little closer. But on both versions of The Office, you have Tim and Dawn or Jim and Pam. Those are the people you’re rooting for.
There’s something very bold and audacious of throwing you into the world of Valerie Cherish and not giving you another POV character. She’s the person you’re with. She is going to be difficult. She is going to be hungry and desperate in a way that makes you uncomfortable. She is going to have outdated ideas about comedy and pop culture that make you roll your eyes. She’s going to say the wrong thing and make other people feel uncomfortable. But also, she is a wounded, vulnerable, fully realized human being and you are supposed to root for her. That’s a very difficult tightrope to walk. You so rarely get to see who she really is or what she really thinks, because she’s doing what she feels like she has to be doing, but she’s doing an awkward enough job of it that certain bits of humanity shine through. It’s Lisa’s incredible performance that allows you to see those cracks in the façade. It’s a master class for any actor.
I also think it’s beautifully written. I love the arc of the second season. The main thing is she’s making this show and the behind-the-scenes documentary. The B story running is her difficulty with her marriage with Mark. And then, on a C level, is her relationship with her hairdresser Mickey. What’s interesting is, as the season progresses, the stakes of those stories shift. The B story ends up becoming more important than the A story, then the C story ends up becoming more important than all of it. It’s a really interesting way to structure a season.
Rewatching the penultimate episode, her fight with Mark outside the restaurant sticks in my memory so much. The “No one believed in you except for me” and “I’m not no one” exchange is just so powerful. I was shocked, on the rewatch, that that’s only halfway through the episode! I assumed that’s the climax. But no, that happens and then she has to go to a press junket the next day. Which is just such a ballsy way to structure an episode! It’s about her having to continue to live in this life around this thing happening to her. I loved it.
I love writing arguments between people. I think the best arguments are when both people are right, or you understand where both people are coming from. And the whole season is structured beautifully in that I do understand both characters in this disintegrating marriage. I understand why her husband is very upset with her and continues to get more and more upset with her. But I also understand why Valerie’s doing the things that she’s doing. When they fight, it feels like a real fight because they’re both correct. Him saying, “No one believed in you except for me,” that’s not a mean thing! That’s him saying, “I believe in you.” But of course, that’s not how she hears it. And it’s so tragic and beautiful.
The Comeback might be the biggest singular influence on BoJack. Obviously, you can watch BoJack and see traces of Mad Men or The Larry Sanders Show or The Simpsons, other shows that I love, but The Comeback might have had the biggest effect on me as far as what I think about the industry, the kinds of stories I want to tell, the kinds of character dynamics I’m interested in exploring. When I first started writing BoJack, I had a feeling like, “A dramedy is kind of in the middle. It’s not too funny, it’s not too serious.” The Comeback shows that the opposite is true. I love the ambition of the show, and the confidence to be like, “Yeah, we’re not going to lighten this moment. We’re just going to sit in this really uncomfortable feeling now. Maybe it’s funny to you, or maybe it’s just sad. Either way, that’s okay. We’re not gonna tell you how to feel about it.”
You can really see its influence on season three, which is about BoJack trying to win the Oscar, and also season five, which is BoJack making this dark, gritty, prestige-y show with this asshole showrunner. It’s interesting that both season three of BoJack and season two of The Comeback start with our character meeting this person who has won an Oscar and doesn’t care about it, or thinks it’s meaningless and stupid. It takes our character the entire season to internalize that message and come to that same conclusion themselves. I don’t know if BoJack ever does, actually. But certainly Valerie does.
The idea that this career success is going to bring you happiness is certainly a thread that runs through both shows. And the suspicion of it, but not an outright denial of it, is also a thread. On The Comeback, it’s not as easy as saying, “Oh, she’s fame hungry, and if she could just leave Hollywood behind she’d be much happier living a quiet life with her husband.” I don’t know if I believe that. We also see what she gets out of it and how it enriches her. It’s not as simple as, “Hollywood is a cesspool and we’re all making garbage and it’s stupid to care about any of it.” The Comeback offers a more ambivalent view.
And then, obviously I don’t want to spoil anything, but the way the season ends and breaks its own format is really surprising. And really bold. That’s the kind of thing that I don’t know I’d have the courage to do, and I’m really impressed that they pulled it off. They nail the ending. I can’t imagine any other version of it.
The finale definitely feels like the end of these stories, but I would love to see a season three, four or five years from now, with a brand-new set of challenges and characters. The Mickey story is done, unfortunately. I don’t know how much story you’re going to get out of Valerie and Mark. And the Paulie G story feels like it’s done. But I would love to see more of Valerie interacting with other women, because so much of the show is about her relationships with men. What would young women now make of Valerie Cherish, and what would she make of them? How would they treat each other or act around each other? There’s a scene in season two where she’s on The Talk — what if she were the co-host on a show like this? You could do a whole season on that! I feel like there’s always more stories to tell about this character.
I just want to spend more time in this world with this character and this actress and these writers. I hope we have not seen the last of her. I hope Lisa feels like, I’ve gotta do another one of these. Her fans are demanding it!