Of course, as an avowed Friends geek, and someone who stuck with Joey for two seasons, I had to give this an equal shot.
The premise is very much along the lines of modern television: Lisa Kudrow plays Valerie Cherish, the former star of a once-hot sitcom called I’m It!, which ran during the heyday of Must See TV and turned a former bit part actress into a temporary star. Now, thirteen years later, Valerie is out of work and signs up for a hip new sitcom called Room and Bored, which comes with a caveat: To do the show, she also has to do a reality show called The Comeback and let cameras follow her around for months on end to chronicle her attempt to rise to the top again. So what you get is two shows within a show, the sitcom and the reality show.
The Comeback (the real show) was canceled by HBO after only one season, and it’s easy to see why as you start to watch it. Valerie is needy, a bit delusional about her place in the entertainment world (“When I was on It…”) and not a very likable person. Her younger co-stars seem to be upstaging her and the show’s writers (Tom and “Paulie G,” played with obnoxious glee by Lance Barber) seem more interested in doing better sitcoms than finding ways to improve her character. This is probably why the show didn’t succeed when initially produced for HBO — early episodes are downright uncomfortable to watch, as Valerie is constantly opening her big mouth at the wrong time and saying the wrong things, or is having trouble learning to live with cameras invading her privacy 24 hours a day.
A good example of the early problems she faced on the show is a joke written by the insensitive fratboys on the writing staff, about puppies and a “Korean BBQ,” which Valerie naturally finds horribly offensive. However, as the eternally wise director Jimmy lets her know, you can’t tell a hotshot 30-year old writer that his joke will bomb, you have to let the audience show him that. Failing to heed that advice, Valerie dives headlong into trying to get the joke changed, at which point Jimmy notes “Let the Hate Show begin” and we seem to be heading down a very slippery slope for the character.
However, while another show might have glibly traced the self-destruction of a self-important former star, this show has something entirely different to say on the subject. Because at the halfway point of the 13-episode series, something truly wonderful happens, and Valerie starts learning. And changing. One of the funniest sequences of the show comes in the eighth episode, “Valerie Relaxes in Palm Springs,” as a free Lincoln Navigator proves to be costly, coming with an annoying spokesman for the car company in the backseat of their entire trip, reminding them not to say “The car….” but instead start sentences with “The Navigator…” At this point, something in the passive-aggressive Valerie finally snaps, and she nearly throws the jerk out on the side of the road, and begins a new journey. One where reality TV has dignity, and where she finally realizes that while she may not be the star of Room and Bored, she is certainly the star of The Comeback, and that’s the important thing. And as her newly-found self-confidence grows, we start to see the other players in the sitcom for what they are. The kids are no longer upstaging her, and in fact we see them as kids, scared about losing their jobs and unable to handle the spotlight that Valerie has been in for so long. Paulie G is exposed as a mean-spirited hack who can’t write anything not related to sophomoric gags or toilet humor, and his comeuppance is the climactic moment of the series and the catalyst for Valerie getting her career back.
It’s this sense of seeing someone go from unsympathetic annoyance into a character we are actually cheering for that makes the show so special, and even more than that it’s a very sly and funny commentary on reality TV in general. For example, much of the humor of the show is derived from Valerie being faced with former reality “stars” who are trying to survive after the fame ends, and although she heeds many other lessons given to her, she fails to heed that one and seems to think her newfound fame will not be fleeting this time around. It’s touches like that which really make the show work on levels outside of the basic humor ones. The observations about “retooling” a failed sitcom until it works are also dead-on as well, much like most of the jokes in this show past the second half.
So if you can get through the first few episodes, which can be tough given the characters you initially meet, you’ll be rewarded with one of the best surprises to come out of HBO in a while, and a show that was taken away before it really got going.
Valerie Triumphs at the Upfronts
Valerie Bonds With the Cast
Valerie Stands Up for Aunt Sassy
Valerie Demands Dignity
Valerie Saves the Show
Valerie Gets a Very Special Episode
Valerie Relaxes in Palm Springs
Valerie Hangs With the Cool Kids
Valerie Gets a Magazine Cover
Valerie Stands Out On The Red Carpet
Valerie Shines Under Stress
Valerie Does Another Classic Leno
Oddly enough, this is one of the few shows on HBO presented in standard 4:3 full screen format, and it looks fine but only as good as your average sitcom transfer.
Dolby Digital 2.0, which is standard for a show that’s just a bunch of people talking to each other.
Quite a bit for a failed series, actually. You get audio commentaries on a few of the episodes from Lisa Kudrow and writer Michael Patrick King, and one notable commentary from Lisa as Valerie, which proves to be fun and shows how much she cared about the character. There’s also a “Behind the Laughter” featurette, with Lisa again stepping back into the Valerie role for a bit that’s ultimately pointless, but a funny little 10 minute interview regardless. As well, there’s a clip of Valerie backstage of Dancing With The Stars.
The Film: ****
The Video: **
The Audio: **
The Extras: **
Funny, quirky, and ultimately very rewarding as a series, The Comeback probably deserved better than it got, but hopefully it will find an audience on DVD, where you can watch all the episodes in one shot and get through the uncomfortable early episodes faster. For reality TV fans or those who want to see the nasty side of making a comedy, this one is worth the look. Recommended.
Tags: SmarK Rants