12/17/2014 02:58 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Why 'The Comeback' Shouldn't Have


No one appreciates sentiment as much as Valerie Cherish, the desperate-for-everything actress on HBO's The Comeback, and no one is more equipped to play her than Lisa Kudrow, an actress so desperately talented she'll never want for work. When the faux-documentary sitcom premiered nine years ago, it was almost unbearable to watch. Not because it, or she, was bad -- just the opposite.

Kudrow's fame-addicted TV-star character was a train wreck on as many levels as Kudrow's helicopter-up-and-down-and-sideways-before-landing line delivery. In between the jokes we got a terrifying glimpse of our own obsession with celebrity and the lengths we'll go to achieve attention. Kudrow made us miserably uncomfortable as her alter ego misfired pretty much every time she rolled the dice, while also doing the almost impossible job of making Valerie terribly likeable.

The Comeback only lasted one season, but slowly gained cult status for its reality TV bombast. Many critics and fans pointed out, correctly, that it was ahead of its time. Everything Kate Gosselin and Sookie and Real Housewives have proved the theory correct. Somewhere, Peter Finch is now madder than hell because he lost the network's war on values. Bringing it back seemed like the perfect idea in our post-Kim's-Internet-Ass, studio-hacked world.

But in the same way Valerie sentimentalizes her former star sitcom role on I'm It (which could easily be read as a stand-in for Kudrow's own overly sentimentalized show Friends), the creators, Michael Patrick King and Kudrow herself, made the mistake of remembering what people loved about The Comeback without fixing the mistakes a second season, or comeback, provides.

While Modern Family and, to a lesser extent, The Office ingeniously used the faux documentary format to create a traditional sitcom (after a few episodes the genre fades into the background in favor of the multi-faceted characters), The Comeback fights against itself in creating compelling drama. The show violates the number one rule of great comedy, dark comedy, even serious drama: Each character has to be uniquely fascinating. There's way too much of Valerie on The Comeback, and by the end of each episode I'm eager to get rid of her, flip the channel, and watch the beautiful ensemble acting on The Newsroom or The Good Wife.

The conceit, it would be argued, is that Cherish has decided to allow her entire life to be filmed, so there's no way around her swallowing up every scene. That works, for about two episodes, but then you want to understand more about the world in which Valerie thrives, or, more often than not, drowns.

You never fully get it because virtually none of the secondary characters are particularly interesting or given much of anything to do. Jane (Laura Silverman) had one terrific scene in the second episode in which her documentary-filmmaker character agrees to re-film Valerie (she's a deadpan lesbian, horse-loving, Hollywood cynic who uses her Academy Award as a doorstop), but since then she's been offered only an occasional glance or line.

Damian Young as Valerie's husband, Mark, is entirely without charm, or neuroses, or wit, or anything worth writing about. The biggest problem in the cast is Robert Michael Morris (Mickey Dean). He's got the largest supporting role, and it's filled with every bad gay cliché TV's been giving us since Jim J. Bullock's Too Close for Comfort's Monroe tried to pass himself off as straight. Even Seth Rogen's cameos seem forced; he's not particularly funny or self-deprecating, but, hey, it's cool to be a guest star on a hip TV show.

The only truly effective supporting character is Paulie G. (an excellent Lance Barber), the vengeful, former heroin-addicted sitcom writer who serves as the perfect foil for Valerie's good-natured absurdity. He's a miserable mess whose crude behavior toward Valerie highlights her plight to make it in Hollywood and to shed light on the way women are treated in show business.

This lack of secondary-character development existed in season one, and we mostly looked the other way because of the novelty of the show, Kudrow's acting, and its even harsher Valerie meltdowns. For the show to have remained compelling, and stay on the air, a change of format was vital. The single-camera action trapped the show -- she was filming a reality TV series, after all -- but there is no reason that with camera phones and YouTube and an updated premise they couldn't have utilized modern technology to indoctrinate more outside chaos into Valerie's bubble. She doesn't need to be toned down; she just needs to take a break now and then.

The first two episodes of the new season were the best, after which the tension and writing started to slip. Valerie breaking into the Chateaux Marmot to greet an uncomfortable Andy Cohen was perfectly awkward, only surpassed by her being lost in a paparazzi rush -- for another actress. There was a beautifully raw scene where Valerie auditioned for the role of "herself," schematically intertwined with her Achilles-heel need to be noticed, even if it means allowing herself to be degraded.

Since then the show has struggled with looking for interesting situations, and most of the set-ups have been haphazard. A blowjob scene involving Rogen went on far too long, and there was one terribly flat moment involving Valerie's publicist (executive producer Dan Bucatinsky) having a diva meltdown in Valerie's trailer. It didn't work as comedy or drama, and it seemed unrehearsed. The only way to make "unscripted" drama effective is to rehearse it so well that it appears effortless. "Winging it" is what Valerie does in front of the camera. It's the last thing anyone behind the scenes should attempt.

There was also an uneven dark-comedy suicide scene, blood-splattered wall and all. Here the show just seemed lost, venturing off track to grab cable R-rated structure attention. The limited nudity, both on this season and the first, also comes across as an HBO must, not a series necessity.

The other major flaw The Comeback has ignored in favor of keeping Valerie's character on speed-dial for an entire half hour is how impossible it is to believe she would be cast in a sitcom or any other project. Her sing-song, cat-on-a-chain-link-electric-fence voice works beautifully "off-camera," but as an "actor," it's abominable, whether she's reciting lines from the shows-within-shows Room and Board or Seeing Red. It also never variates, adding one less dimension to the real show's possibilities. Kudrow's either horribly misguided in not giving Valerie's character realistic breathing room or she's only listening to herself. And if she is, she must be wearing earplugs.

Moreover, RAB and SR, from what we glimpse of them, look like shows so bad they'd never make it on a private YouTube channel, let alone a primetime network or HBO. Every time the camera pans to actual rehearsals or "clips," The Comeback risks reducing itself to their humorless level. Aunt Sassy's tracksuit gimmick got old nine years ago. Now it just reads like they're trying to save money on wardrobe adjustments.

The last episode I watched of The Comeback had Valerie shooting a scene in the desert with live snakes. It wasn't particularly funny, and it plopped down the ultimate sign of comedy trouble -- toilet humor, literally. After another rather flat scene with a now-obese former Room and Board female writer, it finally ended with an excellent on-set confrontation between Valerie and Ron Wesson (Brian Delate). The scene was both extremely uncomfortable to watch and an essential ingredient to what can make this show so damned good; Valerie inadvertently showing us a side of herself that should never be documented for the camera.

So much of our world today, whether it's reality TV, TMZ, Perez Hilton, homemade videos, even texts and emails, permits us far too much private information than human decency should permit. The Comeback, when it works, is a comedic horror story in which the heroine's true villain is herself. When the camera forgets the point, lets the format tell the story instead of vice versa, or disavows its story in favor of unnecessary cameos, you get the feeling that instead of sticking to its theme, the cast of real characters are too smitten with their own creation to look at the outside world they pretend to mock. Valerie Cherish would be right on board.