Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Classic TV: “The Comeback”

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.

The Comeback is by all accounts made up of cruel, biting humour that would be outlawed on American network television, but would be perfectly at home on the BBC. Unlike Friends, there is no genteel, uplifting resolution that reinforces the image of a strong, supportive group. Valerie cannot see beyond herself and only understands her relationship to others as a service to her own, long-forgotten public image. In an instance of the show’s brutal, unforgiving satire, but how smart and self-aware its creative team is, Valerie’s first audition is in competition with former sitcom stars Marilu Henner and Kim Fields (that’s Tootie from The Facts of Life to you). Both Henner and Fields are game-on with making self-mocking appearances on the series, a sure sign that they possess a self-knowledge and good humour that Valerie either lacks of simply refuses to acknowledge.

Perhaps the key to the entire series is Kudrow’s amazing performance as Valerie. Kudrow constructs Valerie’s artifice masterfully. She pitches her words at a flat, high level and unnatural cadence that she actually used in character as Phoebe on Friends … whenever Phoebe wanted to mock someone for being airy, pretentious and phony. Something tells me Phoebe would have despised Valerie. The smartest decision Kudrow makes is to deliver her lines as if Valerie were holding back from saying what she really means. There’s sincerity, a need and a desire to succeed that makes the audience root for Valerie and wishes that she could see beyond herself. Valerie possesses limited acting skills and cannot fathom a career without television. Going into the theatre, teaching acting or even choosing to go into films as a character actor in minor roles not only do not interest Valerie, but they never even cross her mind. It’s to Kudrow’s and King’s credit that they frame the character so that she has a single mindset. At the very least, she’s determined, and enough to compel an audience to see if she really does make the big return she’d been hoping for. It’s not that Valerie is entirely likeable, as she is lowering herself and sacrificing her dignity to the then-new frontier of all-access reality TV.

Although it only lasted a single season, The Comeback earned major Emmy nominations for both Kudrow and King, and it has since been consistently rated in Entertainment Weekly’s polls of the best sitcoms of the past decade. The fact that there has been but a single season of the show, but one that warrants repeated viewings to catch the many nuances that fly by on first viewing, puts The Comeback in the rare company of other equally smart series such as 30 Rock, Absolutely Fabulous and Are You Being Served? As the TV season kicks off again in earnest soon, it’s worth considering some of the more desperate reality shows and high-concept diversions designed to grab advertising funds and eyeballs within the context of The Comeback. Remember that although some comebacks are successful – think of The West Wing and Brothers & Sisters, and how they revived so many careers – there’s also Dancing with the Stars (cough).

The Comeback airs in periodic reruns on The Sundance Channel, and is available for purchase and rental on DVD.