Judge Brett Cullum is having trouble with his sitcom comeback, since he was never in a sitcom in the first place.
Valerie Cherish as Aunt Sassy: You see puppies, I see Korean barbeque!
It was funny, dark, and smart, so it couldn't last long even on cable. The Comeback is a brilliantly conceived "show within a show within a show" situation comedy brought to life by executive producers Michael Patrick King (Sex and the City) and comedienne Lisa Kudrow (Romy and Michelle's High School Reunion). It ran for one season of 13 episodes on HBO and now we have The Comeback—The Complete Only Season to remember it by.
Facts of the Case
Ten years ago she was TV's "It" girl (the star of the runaway hit comedy I'm It!), but now it's a different story. For washed-up sitcom actress Valerie Cherish, no price is too high for clinging to the television spotlight. Lisa Kudrow (Friends) stars as Valerie Cherish, a washed-up Hollywood glamour girl so desperate to revive her career she agrees to star in a reality television show called The Comeback. It chronicles her struggles as a forty-something actress as she appears on a new sitcom called Room and Bored, where she is at best a supporting character and second fiddle to four sexy actors half her age. The cameras follow her and she tries to be on her best behavior as she realizes the world doesn't remember her as fondly as she would like. Even though this might be the case, she's going to make damned sure she's not forgotten.
The 13 episodes featured include:
The Comeback is set up as "raw footage" from Valerie's reality show about her doing the sitcom. The entire show feels like improvisation, but it is completely scripted. If I can keep all of this straight, it's a sitcom pretending to be a reality show about another sitcom, yet feels completely real even though everything is manufactured by design. Whatever it is, the show feels painfully real no matter what. Lisa Kudrow and Michael Patrick King have designed a fake reality show that feels more believable than any of the reality shows currently on the air. It's a brilliant idea, and the show takes the television industry to task for being insipid and vacuous while being damn funny.
There's a line that haunts every episode of the show, when Valerie Cherish implores "Do you hear me?." Lisa Kudrow is a master at subtle characterization and the character of Valerie Cherish was born years ago out of a role she improvised when she was part of a comedy troupe. All Valerie wants is to be heard, but to add comedy she is incapable of hearing anyone else. In that simple thought you have the root of what makes The Comeback so dazzling and smart. Valerie wants to matter after all these years, but the sad part is she doesn't possess the grace to allow others to matter more. Yet we as viewers come to like her, even though she seems blinded by her past notoriety. Like anyone that is a star, she believes she burns bright all the time. The show takes the piss out of her delusions and subjects Cherish to endless humiliation. Yet somehow the woman carries on as if she is still at the top of her game and glory. Valerie's ego may bruise easily, but she's got the unflappable conviction after all these years "she's still it!"
The Comeback is all about watching the Kudrow bust up her Friends image, but she's surrounded by a lot of talent. Executive Producer Michael Patrick King establishes an arc for her that takes the entire season to play out, as if the series was an extended movie. The shows could be watched as stand-alone episodes, but each builds on the previous events. Relationships grow over the course of the narrative, and it's amazing to see it all unfold. The cast is primarily comprised of unknowns, but they get choice moments thanks to King's well-thought-out progression for The Comeback. Swedish real-life rock star and Cameron Diaz lookalike Malin Akerman (Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle) gets a very fun role as the female lead in the fictional sitcom. Damian Young (The Darkroom) plays Valerie's supportive yet bemused husband Mark. Laura Silverman gets to shine as a Nazi-ish reality queen directing the reality show who refuses any pleas to cut or edit. Then there is Lance Barber (Breakdown) as the true villain of the entire series, the hateful writer Paulie "G." Robert Michael Morris (a newcomer who is getting guest spots on sitcoms now) gets to be prissy not-quite-out hair and make-up man Mickey, who becomes Valerie's emotional life raft and confidant for the duration.
The Comeback—The Complete Only Season is another well-thought-out package from HBO that adds tons of value even for fans who have watched every episode during the traditional run. The aspect ratio is an all-too-fitting full-screen treatment (this is a television show spoofing reality shows) and it looks one hundred percent authentic. The colors and picture are quite clear although the camera shakes, halos emerge, and footage varies in quality, as if we were watching raw untouched footage of an actual reality series. The sound is simple stereo, delivering the dialogue well even though sometimes I had to use subtitles because of the chaos. The real treasure lies in the wealth of extras which support the series. There's a very funny interview with Lisa Kudrow still in character as Valerie and an even more hysterical look at the star backstage at Dancing With the Stars with Mickey in tow. The main attraction is the chance to hear Lisa Kudrow and Michael Patrick King discuss the show on the commentaries. They provide their insights together on episodes 1, 9, and 12. King flies solo for episodes 3 and 13, while Kudrow slips into character to allow Valerie Cherish a chance to do commentary over the second episode. The best tracks are those with both King and Kudrow discussing the show and how they conceived it. Although the in-character track seems funny, it's not quite as cool as one would hope.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The Comeback was too smart for its own good and shot over the heads of the general public in many ways. Most people don't want to see behind the scenes of pop culture, and certainly don't want to realize how cruel and unusual life on a sitcom can be. To repeat Valerie Cherish's catch phrase, "I don't want to see that!" This is a dark show, and it revels in insider terms and themes about the pressures of Hollywood. Unfortunately other shows have mined this territory before. On HBO alone you could look at: Entourage, Fat Actress, and The Larry Sanders Show.
Michael Patrick King's ingenious plot arc is a slow burn. It isn't until the fourth or fifth episode that we come to care for Valerie and her costars. That had to be a real liability when the show aired, because viewers would have tuned out on a weekly series about people they do not care for rather quickly. The Comeback—The Complete Only Season is perhaps the best way to view the show since you can treat it as a movie. This is one show that benefits from marathon viewing on the DVD format.
The Comeback—The Complete Only Season is a great way to experience this HBO series that was misunderstood and ignored in its initial run. Remarkable that the Emmys recognized Kudrow with a nomination after one season, but it is a testament to the power of her acting and comedic skills. If you invest in the series it is well worth the rewards you get from watching the show in its entirety. It's a dark ride, but one that is full of insider humor and criticism of the television industry.
Guilty of being too smart to last, The Comeback is a show that skewers television and brings Lisa Kudrow back to where she belongs. It's a comedy that demands to be taken seriously, and never insults your intelligence. It's great TV.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentaries from Actress Lisa Kudrow and Executive Producer Michael Patrick King
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