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Comeback, The

HBO // Unrated // August 4, 2015
List Price: $19.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Tyler Foster | posted August 14, 2015 | E-mail the Author
It's been more than ten years since Valerie Cherish (Lisa Kudrow) last enjoyed success starring in a network sitcom, a comedy set in a law firm called "I'm It!" Canceled after a disastrous fourth season (co-starring a monkey), Valerie has struggled to find fame in the intervening years, but she's just agreed to appear in "The Comeback", a reality TV program documenting her return to network television. Both her new sitcom, "Room and Bored", and "The Comeback" are part of a package, airing on the same network together, and Valerie stays as positive as she can, even with her husband Mark (Damian Young) skeptical of the reality show, the reality show's director Jane (Laura Silverman) appearing constantly exasperated, her trusty hair and makeup man Mickey (Robert Michael Morris) saying the worst things on-camera, and show co-creator / co-writer Paulie G (Lance Barber) butting heads with her at every moment.

Co-created by Kudrow and "Sex and the City" creator Michael Patrick King, some were inclined to label "The Comeback" ahead of its time when it premiered in 2005 to low ratings and mixed reviews. Personally, I'd be more inclined to call it "ahead of the zeitgeist," because while "The Comeback" didn't stick around long enough for the second season of "The Office" to possibly give it a boost, trend-wise, it's not a very good show, relying on familiar and predictable jokes about the nature of celebrity, while also constantly failing to understand that part of what makes a mockumentary work is adhering to the authenticity of it. Less scathing than "Extras", more telegraphed than Christopher Guest, and not as dramatic as even some real reality shows, "The Comeback" plays the same notes over and over, struggling to find traction.

There are very few actors in Hollywood who won't jump at the chance to make fun of themselves: self-deprecation is the quickest way for a movie star to convince the viewer they don't have an ego of their own. To be fair, Kudrow seems earnest in her desire to skewer herself as a vain, fame-obsessed, casually cruel person, but there's nothing unique or interesting about Valerie as a portrait of Hollywood self-importance, not to mention, the degree to which she ignores the signs in front of her about her behavior speeds past comedic obliviousness and into head-trauma cluelessness. Through the first season's 13 episodes, Valerie consistently and continually tries to critique the scripts, direction, and her place on "Room and Bored", and each time she finds herself up against stern, no-nonsense director Jimmy (James Burrows) or Paulie G and other co-creator / writer Tom (Robert Bagnell), with little to no variation on the outcome (Jimmy tells Valerie she's overstepping her boundaries as a co-star, Paulie G silently or actively resents Valerie's input, Tom sympathizes but eventually worms his way out of the conversations).

More importantly, "The Comeback", although it was hailed for being one of the first in on the "reality TV" spoofing business, doesn't seem to understand or care about reality TV tropes. The premise of the show is that we're watching the "raw footage" of "The Comeback", so the constant appearances by Jane and her camera crew are to be expected, but so little attention is paid to staples like the talking-head interview segments or the narrative that Valerie attempts to develop for herself that it never feels particularly convincing. Given most great spoofs score bigger laughs by accurately capturing the details and minutia of the thing they're parodying, "The Comeback" feels like a joke that doesn't put effort into setting itself up, one that has to fall back on the showbiz gags to support itself despite a more present device designed to frame the show.

Ten years after the show's first season and subsequent cancellation, HBO responded to the show's cult popularity by greenlighting a second season, which also takes place ten years later. Doubling down on the meta elements, Valerie is shooting footage for a program she hopes Bravo will pick up when she learns that Paulie G, fresh out of heroin rehab, has written an HBO dramedy about his experience on "Room and Bored", in which a TV writer is tormented by an obnoxious star. At first, Valerie plans to sue the network over the program, but ends up auditioning and winning the role clearly based on herself. Once again, Valerie finds herself working under a seemingly reformed (but still confrontational) Paulie G, and on top of that, HBO takes over her documentary crew, hiring Jane back to once again film the entire experience for posterity.

Although the simplicity of most of Valerie's vain insecurities and neuroses remain mostly the same, the second series of "The Comeback" drops much of the reality TV conceit and focuses more on the characters, and to pleasing effect. By switching the sitcom for a program on a prestige network, the show allows Valerie to confront more complex problems with Paulie, such as a scene in which her character gives a blowjob to the character based on Paulie, played by Seth Rogen. Although "The Comeback" is ostensibly a comedy, its best moments are dramatic, including the uncomfortable tingle of Hollywood sexism in Paulie G's direction on how to play the scene. Paulie's former addiction and basic recovery are played straight, with Barber finding interesting new facets to a character who was pretty one-note the first time around. Furthermore, King and Kudrow dive into Valerie's faltering marriage to Mark, which is increasingly strained by her need to have the spotlight on her at all times. In digging deeper into these people's problems, "The Comeback" turns caricature into character, and gives Kudrow the opportunity to stretch. Although at times, this can seem like a foregone conclusion -- it parallels Valerie's journey with the HBO show -- the changes still manage to humanize Valerie Cherish a little bit. Too bad it took two seasons and ten years to get there.

The first season of "The Comeback" was actually presented on DVD as "The First and Only Season." I guess they felt that a Season Two wouldn't look good on the shelf next to that box set, so they've produced a brand new set that includes all 21 episodes. Of course, this is weird in and of itself, because HBO has already announced a season 3 will shoot whenever King and Kudrow are ready to make one, which suggests a third box set with all three seasons, and no way for owners of the previous two to catch up with just the seasons they're missing. In any case, this four-disc set comes in a single-width white Amaray case with all four discs on two flap trays. The art has Kudrow peeking her head out between stage curtains, and the back cover surrounds Valerie with Season 1 pictures on the left and Season 2 pictures on the right. There is no insert.

The Video and Audio
Season 1 is presented in 1.33:1 full frame, while Season 2 is given a more modern 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation, and both sport Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo audio tracks. Put simply, both versions of "The Comeback" are intended to look like raw video footage, and as such, there are a number of anomalies that would normally not be present in a strong DVD presentation. Unintended color distortion crawls across a dark area of the screen in a modern episode, blatant interlacing is visible in a clip from season 1. The first 13 episodes have a softer, occasionally even smeary look, and artifacts are more prevalent. Aliasing is common. It's not exactly pretty, but it's the way the show is supposed to look.

The stereo soundtrack gets the job done without many thrills or frills. I constantly find myself mentioning that a movie or TV show is "dialogue-heavy" or mostly based around conversations between people rather than real immersive sound design, and few productions could be a better example than "The Comeback", in which the characters talking to each other is really one of the only concerns. A Spanish 2.0 track is also included, and English, French, and Spanish subtitles are also on board.

The Extras
Almost all of the bonus features from the original first season DVD release have been carried over to this new set, which include six audio commentaries by King and Kudrow in various combinations (and even one with Kudrow in character as Valerie Cherish), and "Valerie Backstage at 'Dancing With the Stars'" (6:12), which is pretty self-explanatory.

Season two adds more audio commentary by King and Kudrow, this time on the first and last episodes of Season Two. The two chat with their approach to returning to Valerie ten years later, how they worked at balancing expectations with their own interests, working with the stars, stories from the set, drawing from reality, and working with the cast and crew. Surprisingly, the commentaries are a bit on the low-key side, coming off like fairly casual conversations between the two creators. The second disc also includes a single deleted scene (2:46), from the first episode of the second season, in which we discover Valerie appeared on a home makeover program.

The one extra missing in action here is from the initial release of the first season, a short clip which caught up with Valerie after the finale. Perhaps they felt the content didn't jive with where the character ultimately ended up.

Perhaps I've just seen too many showbiz-spoofing programs, but "The Comeback" left me wanting in terms of humor, with the show frequently relying on easy gags about star ego for laughs. The second season is more successful than the first, but mostly in a surprisingly dramatic sense, allowing Kudrow to stretch and add more believable and authentic dimensions to her character. Fans will want to own the whole show (well, the whole show so far), and at such a low price point, for them this is a no-brainer, but for the rest, give it a rental first.

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