Revisiting The Comeback‘s first season was like settling into familiar sheets on an unfamiliar bed. Lisa Kudrow’s phenomenal Valerie Cherish character is immediate believable and likable, despite her incredible self-consciousness. But I’d forgotten how, underneath that familiar exterior, there was so much pain and sadness in the character and in her world.
Both little details and major themes were lost over time but came back quickly as I re-watched. The first four episodes certainly illustrate Valerie’s desperation to control her image, but more than that, they’re mostly about how much she’s shit upon by everyone around her.
People who are the worst
Paulie G., one of the two writer/producers on her new sitcom Room and Bored, is an excruciating asshole to Valerie. Although Valerie’s co-star Juna acts sweet to Valerie’s face, both she and her young, dumb, pretty co-stars are unintentionally but repeatedly cruel. Meanwhile, her husband is distant and barely supportive, though he’s also clearly uncomfortable around the cameras–unlike his daughter, who dresses up and poses for them like she’s on Toddlers & Tiaras.
About the only person who isn’t a jerk to Val is Mickey, and she usually treats him like crap, not out of malice but because she can. She doesn’t need anything from Mickey except her hair, and the show is brutal in showing their relationship to be as lopsided as it is.
The characters are all finely tuned from episode one, with each offering a different window into typical Hollywood personalities and behavior, and outstanding acting makes that possible. Paulie G. barely speaks but Lance Barber’s incredible performance conveys so much anger and contempt you can practically see it flowing out of his character. Laura Silverman’s subtle portrayal of Jane as patient and dismissive of Val’s concerns starts to set up the reality TV show production as an antagonist.
Valerie’s response to everyone–that annoying, put-on personality that we know so well–is mostly self-protection from a bunch of self-serving people, and her constant assumptions that something is about her are more tragic than arrogant. She is also an expert at that thing we all do when we get something wrong but don’t want to admit it and try to explain our way around it (“I know, I know, that’s why…” or “Yeah, of course, yeah, but…”). What a character.
For me, the fourth episode was much less successful than the first three, as the new female writer feels like the most throw-away of sitcom characters, there just to advance the plot. The episode does work to build Valerie’s anxiety, and there is really nice payoff for her efforts to change the racist joke her character gets (“you see a box of puppies; I see a Korean barbecue”). It also makes sure we understand that, despite her efforts to be nice, Val understands Paulie G.: “Don’t hate me. You can’t hate me. It’s not fair. It’s not who I am.”
Also in that episode, Valerie starts to open up and be more honest even when the cameras are around, which allows us to embrace her character, rather than just be annoyed. She finally admits that she is scared about what will happen if the show and/or reality TV show fail: “The little trickle becomes the Grand Canyon. It’s not a tough business for nothing.”
Behind the scenes of reality TV
The Comeback is a series that knows reality TV; it’s not one that pretends to understand reality just to use it as an easy joke. In many ways, this fictional series felt more authentic than many reality series, and so many seemingly small things make it come to life and feel real. Valerie’s calls for a time-out or instructions to Jane are amusing, and there are hilarious fake reality shows in the second and third episodes, but all of that is only the surface of how the reality show’s production is captured.
Most important, I think, is the decision to constantly show crew members scrambling or Jane looking at her monitor as the camera pans past. They reveal how reality television is made, and they do it in a way that even series that break the fourth wall don’t do. Even the most honest shows tend to not include footage of people having their mics put on, or of crew members scrambling to get ahead of their subject. The Comeback does all of this so well that it’s barely noticeable but it’s very important and very different than other series that purport to be footage from a reality series.
Consider The Office and Parks and Recreation: both are single-camera comedies that I truly loved, and that, at their peak, had the power to deliver highly emotional moments amid absurd and even slapstick comedy. Although their characters acknowledged the cameras, both made the choice to not show the camera crews. But that leaves an empty space where there should be something, both literally and metaphorically. When The Office switched from one camera angle to another, the camera crew filming the first shot should be in the second shot, but is missing. Even though that may not be immediately noticeable, it matters because it’s a reminder, even subconscious, that this is pretend.
Not so with The Comeback, which shows everything, thanks to the conceit that what we’re watching is raw footage. That’s what made these first four episodes so remarkably successful right out of the box. Even if you don’t care about how it satirizes reality television (I obviously do!), it’s a fascinating world.
On to the next four episodes.