The Comeback is a sitcom about a reality show about a sitcom, which is three shows too many. Lisa Kudrow plays Valerie Cherish, who once starred in the fictional hit series, I’m It!. After being out of work for several years, Cherish attempts to revive her career by auditioning for a new pilot. She lands the role, but the contract comes with a stipulation: Valerie must agree to allow a documentary crew to film her return to tv for a reality show called The Comeback.
The HBO series has us watching the footage of that reality show. It’s been referred to by several critics as the sister of Kirstie Alley’s Fat Actress, as both feature out-of-work and insecure tv stars struggling to return to primetime. Alley and Kudrow can both do drama and comedy, but suffer from the public’s continued adoration for their comedic television personas, and so they have turned to cable sitcoms to shake up those images. Alley emerged as “fat and proud,” and Kudrow now emerges as “not Phoebe.” However, neither series is funny and both their new characters are so annoying that we miss Rebecca and Phoebe even more.
Valerie Cherish is a far cry from Phoebe Buffay. Egocentric and manipulative, she’s less outright hateful than passive-aggressive. In The Comeback‘s premiere episode, she asks for retakes of the documentary as well as the sitcom. At home, she chastises her husband Mark (Damian Young) for noisily using the toilet while she is filming her video diary and has her maid Esperanza (Lillian Hurst) call the plumber, though Mark has asked Valerie to call. Such efforts at control are useless — Esperanza bungles calling the plumber, leading to water damage to Valerie’s memorabilia; her role on the show is reduced to the supporting role of the wacky aunt, so that more attention can be paid to the younger starlets; and guest star James Burrows reprimands her unprofessional behavior on the set.
Like Fat Actress, The Comeback can only appeal to those willing to sit through antics and tantrums in order to get a pretend behind-the-scenes look at show business. It takes shots at the television industry, but the backstage “footage” fails to reveal anything you haven’t seen before; the first episode ridiculed the last minute changes made on set, the emphasis on youth and sexuality in casting, and the devoted staffer who inflates the star’s ego. With nothing new or funny to say about such situations, the barbs are only clichéd.
Other shows have made fun of divas (see: Murphy Brown or Ab Fab), and struggling actors (Friends‘ Joey and Cybill). However, these characters made use of self-deprecating humor that allowed viewers to identify with them and their quirks and flaws. Valerie Cherish here plays the straight man and the world is the joke. She is convinced she’s surrounded by lunacy, when it is her own behavior that is the source of the bedlam.
Also unoriginal is The Comeback‘s format. Like The Larry Sanders Show, Arrested Development, and Curb Your Enthusiasm, it frames itself as “documentary.” Here, the gimmick is limited, because Valerie is not honest or forthcoming, not the type to reveal herself on camera, ever. It appears the show realizes this, to a point, limiting our access to what might seem “real” behaviors, as, for example, her reaction to her role’s reduction. Such rejection had to reach the core of her insecurities, as it was based on her age, but viewers only saw her on-screen rationalization of the sitcom writers’ “decision” as if it’s apart from her own appeal or abilities.
Since we don’t have access to or sympathy with Valerie, the series might do well to grant us such emotional connections to other characters. But no. Mark’s limited role focuses on “husbandly” things, as when he dashes off to work and gives his wife a pep talk. The documentary crew appears only briefly, as do Valerie’s sitcom co-workers. According to the show’s website, the cast includes 12 regulars, but they only have a few moments of screen time. Only Jane (Laura Silverman), the reality show director, and Mickey (Robert Michael Morris), Valerie’s hairdresser, speak more than a couple of lines, but they only serve to direct the attention back to Valerie.
Considering that The Comeback is the brainchild of Kudrow and Sex and the City creator Michael Patrick King, one would expect it to be rich with characters whom viewers would want to get to know intimately. But the characters in The Comeback aren’t worth getting to know. Kudrow may not want to be Phoebe anymore, but she should at least try to be someone we want to get to know.