Every fall, a plethora of formerly big-name actors (or those who simply aspired to be but never were) make much-hyped, often embarrassing returns to the medium that made them famous in the first place. They often return in the context of a reality show and is “rediscovered” by a younger generation that tries to reclaim the washed-up star as one of their own, lending them an air of cool and generally upsetting universal law. It is in this atmosphere that one can fully appreciate one of the most brutally funny and expertly crafted comedy series ever created for American television, The Comeback.
Launched in the summer of 2005 on HBO, The Comeback was the brainchild of Michael Patrick King, then fresh off the conclusion of Sex and the City’s run on the same network, and starring Emmy winner Lisa Kudrow, who was herself coming off the successful run of Friends. The series, which ran only one season, was not a show-within-a-show, but two TV series that ran within the context of another show. Valerie Cherish is a former late 80s/early 90s sitcom star of the fictional, aptly-titled I’m It! The show, then nine-seven episodes into its run, was cancelled just three episodes shy of the one hundred episodes required for syndication. The show has since been forgotten and Valerie has been looking to return to her glory days ever since. Married to workaholic attorney Mark, she is well-to-do, looks fondly on a career that only lasted three years, and treats her housemaid as a visitor who somehow broke into her mansion. (They are not Karen and Rosario from Will & Grace.) Valerie has taken a role in the fledgling new comedy Room & Bored, and agrees to have a camera crew film her comeback and return to sitcom stardom as one of the conditions of assuming the role. It’s her first major acting project in years.
Valerie’s joy is short-lived as things take a vicious turn in the pilot. Valerie initially auditions for the role of an older roommate to a group of perpetually sunned, biologically gifted quartet of housemates. Needless to say, there are plenty of references to Three’s Company, as the sexual innuendo abounds. Her character is turned into Aunt Sassy, a Mrs. Roper-type who favours tacky track suits and landlady who barges in only to spoil the housemates’ fun. Her screen time is cut, she is continually forced to read lines mocking her alleged old age (Valerie herself is only in her early 40s).
Other characters revolve around and seem to exist only in relation to Valerie, at least from her point of view. It takes several viewings of certain episodes to see the rich inner life of even the more minor characters. Room & Bored’s juvenile creators and head writers are Tom and Paulie G, both of whom despise Valerie and are stuck with her only because the network agreed to green-light the series only if the reality show is given unrestricted access to the series. Needless to say, they engage in sadistically subjecting Valerie to further humiliations major and petty, at one point insisting that she dismiss a group of puppies in character with the line “you see puppies, I see Korean barbecue!” despite her protestations that the insensitivities of that line would be offensive.
The show’s breakout star is a perky blonde thing name Juna (Malin Ackerman), an aspiring actress with no acting experience whatsoever. Her husband tolerates her activities, if only to get her out of his hair (although he clearly adores her). Her devoted, elderly gay hairdresser Mickey lives in the proverbial glass closet door, but like Mark, is the only person on the show who unconditionally loves Valerie. James Burrows, the legendary director of such classic series as Cheers, Frasier, Will & Grace and (life imitates art!) Friends, makes a handful of appearances as himself, a comic genius who is perpetually bemused by the fact that he has to direct the infantile mess known as Room & Bored.