End of Season Report: The Comeback, Season 1 – Part 1

17 Aug

The Comeback

I just finished the first season of the Comeback, as part of my effort to catch up on some HBO series I missed the first time around. The Comeback was never hilarious or particularly funny but it was enjoyable, phenomenally interesting, and surprisingly prescient. I’ve broken my lengthy comments into two sections, of which this is obviously the fist.

The Comeback is a show-within-a-show. Valerie Cherish (the excellent Lisa Kudrow) is a forty-something actress who, over a decade ago, was a hot young star of a successful but not life-altering sitcom “I’m It.” Since then, she hasn’t found a lot of work, and as she’s gotten older, she’s not longer seen as the hot young actress she once was, or that she still sees herself as. She gets another chance at the spotlight however, when she’s up for a supporting role in new sitcom Room & Bored, and as part of that process, is invited to star in a reality show called “The Comeback” about her return to TV. The entire series is framed as raw footage for this reality show.

The Comeback is a great parody of Hollywood culture, and specifically how Hollywood treats older actresses. The supporting cast is excellent, but everything rests on Cherish, who due to the format as a faux reality show focused on her big comeback, is featured in almost every scene. She has some classic cringeworthy qualities. She’s part Michael Scott, although since The Comeback debuted before the American The Office, you might say Michael Scott is actually part Valeria Cherish. Valerie has none of the stupidity of Scott or the utter insensitivity of Scott’s British equivalent David Brent but she has the awkwardness, the lack of awareness at how constantly uncomfortable she makes people, and the desperate insecurity and need to be liked.

Valerie peaked early, reached fame easy, and was treated to a world in which she was famous, loved, and respected. Everyone was a fan, and everyone wanted to be her friend. The Comeback has a striking amount of similarities with BoJack Horseman, which I coincidentally I watched immediately before. (I hope to write another post specifically comparing the two). Valerie is desperate to be liked. She’s not hip, but wishes she was; not enough to try to actually be, but enough to claim she is.

The show actually hits Valerie’s attitude and personality right on the nose in an episode in which Valerie goes to Palm Springs with her husband and hangs out with a couple they know casually. The wife, who has survived cancer, sees what we, and what ostensibly everyone in this world sees, and actually speaks to Valerie straight about it, which just about no one else does. This friend notes that ever since she recovered from cancer, she’s been unabashed and unafraid to be herself, and that Valerie ought to try to do the same. Valerie is incredibly uncomfortable in her own skin; she wants so desperately to be liked, to be loved, to be needed. She’s passive aggressive all the time. She’s constantly afraid to just speak her mind, which might make her more unlikable to someone else, but to others it might just sound human.  She’s not hip with the kids, but she tries desperately to be. She tries to insist so strenuously that she can take a joke, while sometimes she should rightfully be angry. She is constantly looking towards the camera, saying yeah when she means no, having her every move securitized but being okay with it because she wants so badly to be relevant again. She wants to prove that she’s cool, that she’s still got it. But she wants it so badly, that she can’t.

For all of her personal frustrations, her relationship with her husband is stable and happy and never dramatic which is both surprising and welcome. Her businessman husband is startlingly comfortable in his own skin. He knows he’s not cool. All he wants is to relax, have a steak, have a drink, play a quick nine, and listen to Cheap Trick. He doesn’t like the cameras, but he puts up with them, because he’s supportive of Valerie and wants what she wants. He’s not the most interesting guy in the world, but he genuinely loves and cares for Val, and knows who he is, and the contrast with Val is sharp.

Valeria is constantly frustrated but tries to mask this frustration with an overabundance of good cheer. She’s at various times both incredibly jealous and narcissistic, but tries not to be obvious about it, even though it’s clear. She doesn’t understand she’s not the star anymore – like an older athlete who can’t realize she’s a supporting player now. She acts extra nice, even though she’s primarily interested in supporting people in exchange for them supporting her, but then again, niceness is still niceness, regardless of the agenda behind it, and Valeria does do real favors and show genuine appreciation to others because it’s what she would want. In fact, she’s most empathetic when others are desperate, because it’s a language she can understand. When only female writer Gigi breaks down because she desperately wants to go to the Golden Globes, Val extremely generously offers to take her as her guest.

The Comeback hues very closely to a line where you are both constantly aggravated by Valerie but also feel really terrible for her. She has to deal with networks and writers and directors who  really don’t care about what she thinks. Room and Bored is a hilariously obviously terrible sitcom that everyone has to pretend is funny all the time because the alternative is admitting that they’re wasting away their year working on utter dreck.

More in part 2.

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