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What Lisa Kudrow’s ‘Comeback’ Says About the Male TV Anti-Hero

What Lisa Kudrow's 'Comeback' Says About the Male TV Anti-Hero

We live in a “Golden Age of Television,” a
time when morally compromised men have their day in the sun, when audiences
praise Walter White while condemning Hannah Horvath, and intelligent writers
are susceptible to common double standards. Over the last ten years of
television, the rules for men and women have largely gone unchecked: While male
roles evolved in complexity, women have been stuck in the same position, held
to the same expectations, and rarely allowed to join in the fun. Luckily, not
every show is buying it.

Season 2 of HBO’s cult favorite
The Comeback” remains as meta as the first, with “actress of a
certain age” Valerie Cherish (Lisa Kudrow) moving from sitcoms to drama,
joining the cast of “Seeing Red” (an HBO drama based on the events
of “The
Comeback”‘s first season). However, much in
the way the reality show within “The Comeback” made Valerie
out to be the bad guy, “Seeing Red” is told from the perspective of
Paulie G., Valerie’s former foil, writing Valerie Cherish as a
manipulative narcissist named Mallory Church.

Obviously, Paulie’s fictional Valerie isn’t the one we’ve come to know:
Unlike most characters on television, Valerie is a good person, who aims to
please without getting in the way, creating a passivity that doesn’t necessarily translate to obliviousness. Valerie
recognizes abuse, she just can’t do anything about
it, and “Seeing
Red”
takes advantage of her good nature, forcing her to uphold Paulie’s side of the story while damning her name.

“Seeing Red” is a parody of the type of shows
that make up “The Golden Age.” Usually centered on a broken man
with a sordid past, shows like “Breaking Bad,” “Mad
Men,”
or even “Eastbound
and Down”
turn the morally bankrupt into heroes, with the show’s moral center placed upon the female characters, generally the
wives or girlfriends of the leads. However, there’s a downside to being the moral compass—you’re also the party pooper.

Created by Kudrow and Michael Patrick King, “The Comeback” and
its many shows-within-the-show examine the things men and women are allowed to
do on television. With the pitch-black comedy “Seeing Red,” Paulie writes
the story of a tortured, heroin-addicted sitcom writer; morally dubious and
stripped of his masculinity, Paulie gives his fictional surrogate a villain, a
deceptive killjoy based on Valerie Cherish. But while neither character on “Seeing
Red”
has the best intentions in mind, Paulie stacks the odds in his favor by
casting the insanely likable Seth Rogen to play him and turning Mallory into
his biggest hurdle. 

Meanwhile, Valerie is hyper-aware of her image, attempting to
manage every aspect of it on and off-set, from the lighting in the scene to
each awkward situation she finds herself in. This occurs in contrast to Rogen,
who doesn’t need to worry about such things. He
improvises lines, offers stage directions, and even picks and chooses when he’ll work. He’s also the only one
who can get Valerie out of the more humiliating scenes, recognizing both her
discomfort and powerlessness. Paulie and HBO give Rogen the freedom to be an
artist. Meanwhile, Valerie is literally driven into the desert, thrown into the
trunk of a car, bound, gagged and covered in snakes. Not that she can do much
about it. Even after she offers her house as a location and saves the show, Valerie
and her requests are met with hostility.

“The Comeback” creates
a world that’s reflective of “golden age” television, satirizing the types
of roles available on cable — “waitresses, therapists, meter
maids, strippers, crack addicts, and [the main character’s] mother.” It’s
a conversation many wish would go away, including people on the show: When one
female blogger asks about female roles on HBO, a male blogger cuts her off with
a dismissive “please don’t start this again.” Men
are rewarded for breaking rules and being outspoken, which is why Paulie gets
infinite second chances to prove a genius he doesn’t actually have, and women are chastised for it. But as Gigi
“the girl writer” sadly puts it in Episode 6, “women in this
town aren’t allowed to cry.”

Women simply cannot win on “The Comeback”: If they say
nothing, they’re humiliated, and if they speak up, they’re a
nuisance. It’s a problem that
recalls an op-ed written by “Breaking Bad”‘s Anna Gunn for the “The New York Times.” She
wrote
:

“A typical online post complained
that Skyler was a ‘shrieking, hypocritical harpy’ and
didn
t ‘deserve the great life she has.

‘I have never hated a TV-show character
as much as I hate her,’ one poster wrote.
The consensus among the haters was clear: Skyler was a ball-and-chain, a drag,
a shrew, an ‘annoying bitch wife.

Vince Gilligan, the creator of “Breaking
Bad,”
wanted Skyler to be a woman with a backbone of steel who would stand up
to whatever came her way, who wouldn
t just collapse in
the corner or wring her hands in despair. He and the show
s writers made Skyler multilayered and, in her own way, morally
compromised. But at the end of the day, she hasn
t
been judged by the same set of standards as Walter.

Its
notable that viewers have expressed similar feelings about other complex TV
wives — Carmela Soprano of “The Sopranos,” Betty
Draper of “Mad Men.”
Male characters dont seem to inspire
this kind of public venting and vitriol.”

Like Skyler White, who simply didn’t
want her husband cooking drugs and murdering people, Valerie is an obstacle and
a scapegoat for her male counterparts. Paulie created Mallory, a woman that can
yell at him for being irresponsible, so audiences could blame someone else for
his behavior — turning “Seeing Red” into a byproduct of his anger and
resentment, and turning Valerie into what Gunn describes as, “a shrieking harpy.” Paulie
refuses to own up to his problems and instead forces his issues onto Valerie,
because she gets in the way of his genius — he treats Valerie the way
audiences treated Skyler. Valerie isn’t asking for the
world, she’s asking Paulie to do his job, and in
return, she’s met with “venting and vitriol.”

More than anything else, “The Comeback” shows the types
of conflict that face actresses, especially at Valerie’s age. As undervalued in her sitcom days as she is in her drama
days, Valerie follows the established order and tries to make her requests as
slight as possible, because to Kudrow and King, this is rule number one for
women in show business: if you make waves, no one will want to work with you.

Valerie’s passivity grew as a defense mechanism,
one that keeps her from looking like a diva on set but also makes her the shrew
of the show. She lives in a world where men get to do whatever they want,
because they “provide,” whether it be scripts in Paulie’s case or money in Walter White’s case. However, this relationship shackles Valerie, because the
world sees this behavior as normal. As the golden age has shown us, people
respect the malicious and demonize the rational. Valerie understands this but
cannot do anything about it — because, apparently, speaking truth to power is
to shriek like a harpy.

The Season 2 finale of “The Comeback” airs tonight on
HBO. 

READ MORE: Review: ‘The Comeback’ Season 2 Takes HBO Comedy to a Dark & Challenging New Level

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