The Comeback returns tonight, and my attempt to break the rewatch over several weeks failed because when I did sit down to watch, I just kept watching. The problem with re-watching a phenomenal show that has just 13 half-hour episodes is that it’s easy to binge.
While episodes one to four set up the season, and episode five and six sets up the second half/two-thirds of the season, and particularly foreshadows the finale, when everyone watches the premiere. However, as a bridge, those two episodes drag somewhat, and for me that’s because they aren’t grounded in the drama of the sitcom, which gets shut down. They also both deliver pretty explicit lessons for Valerie, and the exposition doesn’t work as well.
The Amazing Race‘s Charla cameos in episode five, a crossover between her fake reality show “The Littlest Assistant,” and it’s absurdly fun and something I totally forgot about. The problem with Charla’s cameo is that she’s not an actor, and it feels forced when she has to deliver some of the episode’s critical lessons to Valerie, who wants to be producing a reality show with “dignity.” “Wake up, Val,” Charla yells at her. “This is reality TV, you have to make it happen.”
Still, it’s absolutely hilarious when Charla runs out of gas to create drama, and then tries to run across the interstate (“I’ve done this before!”). And I love that Mickey is a huge fan who constantly references her achievements on TAR.
The problem of one-note characters
The trip to Palm Springs is another episode with characters who don’t feel like jokes or story points rather than real people. Many of its supporting cast members are fleshed out, but others feel very one-note. Gigi, the female writer, is the most omnipresent of these thinly developed characters. It’s definitely a problem.
On the Palm Springs trip, Valerie and her husband are haunted by a representative from Lincoln trying to make sure its product placement is perfect, and Valerie gets called out by her cancer survivor friend about her attempts to control everything.
Those characters are used as stepping stones for Val to finally take control: playing music and threatening the product placement guy. It’s not quite growth, more like a moment, but it’s significant.
When Room and Bored comes back–even more than the flip phones, this seems like a relic of a different era, when sitcoms were given a chance to grow instead of immediately cancelled–The Comeback starts building momentum that leads into its finale. It also fleshes out the Room and Bored cast members, who are bumped aside for two new cast members, suddenly find themselves in Valerie’s position. (Earlier, Shayne gets some character development when she hypocritically objects to being on a reality show because of its content, even though she’s on a show with outrageously sexual content. I love when she says, “I don’t think Jesus would approve of reality shows.”)
The post-retooling story just works on every level; the reality show is still there, but isn’t getting the focus. That’s true all the way through the cast’s almost-strike, when Val stays home and no one else does, and the increasing attention for Juna, including a People’s Choice Award. With those plotlines, never mind Val’s interaction with her publicist (played by Comeback producer and Lisa Kudrow’s producing partner Dan Bucatinsky, who adds just the right amount of menace to the character), the show perfectly satirize Hollywood’s worst tendencies.
Throughout, there are so many great comedic moments, such as Val wearing Project Runway designer Jay McCarroll’s dress backwards, and Chris (a young Kellen Lutz) tackling one of “the beetee beetee boys” when he says something cruel.
Puke to the rescue
The penultimate episode is the most memorable of the entire series thanks to the moment when Valerie, dressed in a cupcake costume, punches Paulie G., who throws up, causing her to throw up. It’s great physical comedy, and Jane’s reaction–she actually reacts, smiling–is a great, subtle indication that she knows she has a show.
Jane unwittingly instigates that interaction by pushing the writers for Val to have a moment in the episode in order to have something to use to promote the reality series. The cupcake scene is the result, and the whole episode reveals more of Jane than we get the previous 11 episodes. She’s in the finale, too, when the crew, lead by back-up producer Jeff, follows Val to Jane’s house in Val’s desperate attempt to quit. “You’re an asshole, Jeff,” she says, and then gets the perfect response from Jeff: “It’s good TV.”
The finale offers Valerie’s biggest humiliation in the form of the premiere episode of “The Comeback.” While the reality show’s editing misrepresents Valerie and Paulie G’s relationship and makes Val into the villain, it’s actually most cruel to a supporting character: Mickey. Mickey’s evolving openness about his sexuality is a hilarious bit that unfolds throughout the season (I love when Val misreads the card on the flowers as from “your favorite gay,” when Mickey, still closeted, wrote “guy”).
“The Comeback”‘s editors take something Mickey said about hair out of context and cut that with footage to make him look like he’s lusting after Room and Bored cast members and crew. It’s just mean and unnecessary, and one of The Comeback‘s best and most striking arguments about what reality television has become.
That was 2004. I can’t wait to see what it has to say about what reality TV is now, 10 years later.