I'd heard a handful of unflattering things about HBO's The Comeback while it was on the air, and then the network went and canceled the thing after only one 13-episode run -- so obviously I didn't sit down with the DVDs and expect something brilliant. But while it's true that The Comeback takes a few episodes before it finds a comfort zone, and sure, it feels like the 25th "Hollywood-based" comedy series to hit the small screen in the past few years -- the simple truth is that this is a very funny, very smart, and very pointed satire that probably should have made a bigger splash. One could point to the prickly lead character (a has-been sitcom actress who's desperate for a career resurgence) as part of the show's demise, but if you manage to stick with The Comeback beyond its first several episodes, you'll probably be surprised by the unexpectedly touching and oddly poignant detours it takes.
Also, it's pretty darn funny, although not necessarily in a "hold your sides in hilarity" kinda way.
The fantastic Lisa Kudrow stars as Valerie Cherish, an aging actress still barely clinging to the grapevine of celebrity. But Valerie's hit upon a potential goldmine: Not only will she be co-starring in an all-new sitcom, but she'll also be the focus of a "reality show" that aims to document her re-claim of fame. Needless to say, the sitcom turns out to be an absolute pile of crap -- and the reality show isn't going much better. Stuck with a film crew permanently by her side, Valerie stumbles from audition to rehearsal to dressing room, always more than willing to stick her foot in her mouth or bumble her way into one harrowing humiliation after another.
Valerie takes so much emotional punishment in the first five episodes... I'm convinced that's what doomed the show to cancelvania. But as the 13 episodes move on, the background characters begin to show much more dimension, and Valerie's plight is portrayed with just as much humanity and hopefulness as frustration and insecurity. To be honest, I pretty much hated the gal for the first two episodes, but once The Comeback starts tipping its hand, the series displays a masterful balance between venomous satire and subtle sweetness. And Kudrow is truly something to behold in this series; her Valerie Cherish is desperate yet strangely noble, egocentric yet unexpectedly generous, and hilariously passive-agressive from stem to stern..
The satirical side of The Comeback is spot-on perfect. It's evident from frame one that this show was put together by people who know about television production. Kudrow's extensive Friends experience no doubt came in handy (she produced and co-wrote the series, in addition to anchoring it), but series creator Michael Patrick King deserves much of the praise. A longtime sitcom veteran, King paints a backstage picture that couldn't possibly be more accurate. The set, crew and cast members of "Room and Bored" feel like a spoof of a hundred mindless sitcoms, and the backstage double-dealings provide some of the season's best moments. (The late-stage addition of two nonsense-spouting comedians is a brilliant touch.)
Although The Comeback is Valerie Cherish's show all the way, it's a mockumentary-style comedy that's got some real buried treasure in the supporting cast department. As the young producers of "Room and Bored," Robert Bagnell and Lance Barber are just perfect. (Barber's hateful "Paulie G" is one of the most interesting TV villains I've seen in a long time.) As the quietly mercenary little producer of Valerie's reality show, Laura Silverman delivers some great laughs while using only a minimum of syllables. As Valerie's loyal hair & make-up man, Robert Michael Morris takes what would normally be a one-note "old flamer" character and brings a lot of color and enthusiasm to the the role. Young Malin Akerman plays the perky young starlet whom Valerie takes under her wing, and the kid's got the look and charm of a young Cameron Diaz. Also offering some brilliant supporting work is Damian Young as Valerie's long-suffering, still-affectionate, and ever-bemused (non-famous) husband Mark. The guy steals just about every scene he's in; Young and Kudrow together do some really fantastic work together. (James Burrows, basically the Spielberg of Sitcoms, has a really excellent recurring role as a tough-love series director.)
The Comeback is whole lot better than I thought it would be, but I'm not really surprised that HBO canned it after only one season. After Curb Your Enthusiasm, Entourage, Fat Actress, The Larry Sanders Show, and all the other "behind-the-scenes" series, this one must have felt like old news right out of the gate. Plus it does take a few episodes to warm up to... but I still liked the series quite a bit. And that's one great thing about DVD: "Failed" series get to live a second life. I suspect this one will find a few more fans down the road.
Episode List (*My favorites)
The Comeback (Pilot)
Valerie Triumphs at the Upfronts*
Valerie Bonds with the Cast
Valerie Stands Up for Aunt Sassy
Valerie Demands Dignity*
Valerie Saves the Show
Valerie Gets a Very Special Episode*
Valerie Relaxes in Palm Springs*
Valerie Hangs with the Cool Kids*
Valerie Gets a Magazine Cover
Valerie Stands Out on the Red Carpet*
Valerie Shines Under Stress
Valerie Does Another Classic Leno*
Video: A perfectly clean fullscreen transfer, although you should know that The Comeback is shot "mock-reality" style, with lots of handheld jitters and jolts, several of which contain some very funny gags if you're paying attention.
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, with the music portions only slightly out of balance with the dialogue. Due to the "guerilla" nature of the footage, some of the exchanges are less than perfectly audible, which is why I chose to watch the series with the subtitles on. (English, French, Spanish)
Spread across two discs are a half-dozen audio commentaries, and they break down like so:
Episodes 1, 9 and 12: Lisa Kudrow and Michael Patrick King
Episode 2: Valerie Cherish
Episodes 3 and 13: Michael Patrick King
Five of the commentaries are your standard chit-chat, although Kudrow & King do offer some really solid insights and anecdotes along the way. The episode 2 commentary is Kudrow "in character," which isn't as obnoxious as it sounds, even if it's not all that funny.
Valerie After the Laughter (8:47) is like an epilogue for Ms. Cherish as she tries to explain what she'll be doing now that Room and Bored and The Comeback have been put on hiatus.
Valerie Backstage at Dancing with the Stars (6:12) is the sitcom/reality star backstage at that stupid dance show.
Both discs also offer an episode index.
The Comeback takes steady aim on the struggles of the aging actress, and delivers a 13-episode story that starts out harsh and doesn't shy away from the painful stuff. As a pointed and knowing satire of today's TV landscape, the series does a fine job. As a vehicle for the talents of Lisa Kudrow (and a strong supporting cast), it's pretty excellent.