Wait. Phoebe from “Friends” did an HBO show?
Yeah, in 2005, with the executive producer of “Sex and the City.” The premise was that Valerie Cherish (Kudrow), an aging sitcom star, agreed to let a reality crew film her as she goes through the process of acting in a new network comedy and thus revealing all the behind-the-scenes awfulness of Hollywood. The sitcom and the reality show are both disasters. “The Comeback” captured all of the awkward awfulness.
So, like “Curb Your Enthusiasm”?
The tone is definitely similar, but with some key differences. “The Comeback” was framed as the raw footage from Valerie’s reality show, thus revealing the full truth of what happened along the way, including Valerie’s frantic efforts to control her image in front of the cameras. The result proved a bit hard to watch.
Why was it so hard to watch?
While Larry David feels like he’s in control of the action on “Curb,” Valerie is a much more vulnerable character, constantly trying to call cut on the events happening in real time — and failing. She’s a decent person, but hamstrung by a combination of insecurity and ego, which brings out the worst in her, and the show doesn’t pull punches. It’s one of the bravest performances I’ve ever seen, but not necessarily easy viewing.
It sounds tough, but also really, really interesting. Why didn’t they do more than one season?
Good question! Low ratings, mixed critical response and no wins at the Emmys were a factor. It was also 2005. Taylor Swift didn’t even EXIST yet!
Fun fact: The DVD box art literally refers to Season 1 as “The Only Season.”
Well, I loved the original series! Is everyone back?
Not everyone, but Valerie’s husband Mark (Damian Young), hairdresser Mickey (Robert Michael Morris), showrunner/nemesis Paulie G (Lance Barber), reality producer Jane (Laura Silverman) and publicist Billy (Dan Bucatinsky, also an executive producer) are major players. Also, many others (including Malin Akerman and Kellan Lutz) make appearances.
So are the first few episodes are all about reuniting the cast and resuming the status quo?
Yes and no. While Valerie’s marriage and friendship with Mickey has remained intact over the years, only one other major character rejoins the team full-time. And even once it’s back in the swing of things, events work out differently.
What’s changed this season?
On a plot level, quite a lot. The even shorter answer: Time. Valerie, in this new season, is still being filmed reality-style, but instead of being a slave to a network show, she’s hired her own crew to follow her. In the years since the original “Comeback,” after all, reality television has exploded even beyond what we previously imagined.
Also, without revealing too much about the plot of the season, Valerie’s major focus is a little more high-brow; her new role is in an HBO series starring Seth Rogen.
Whoa! Seth Rogen is in this show?
Yeah. Playing himself! He’s seriously great.
Will you want to be best friends with Seth Rogan by the end of Episode 3?
I mean, I certainly did.
What’s the most fascinating element of the first five episodes?
Much like the original season now functions as a time capsule of the television industry in the year 2005, this new installment captures so much about the way talent is currently struggling to find equilibrium in the modern world.
While HBO might have cast her for the novelty value, and while Valerie herself might not be aware, she has an unconscious real talent as an actor. As an actor, let’s be clear. Not as an improv comedian.
Is watching a truly brilliant improviser pretend to be a complete failure at improvisation incredible?
It might be some of the most embarrassing material in the first five episodes — because every actor carries around their baggage, and Kudrow’s baggage happens to include her now-legendary talent. But the answer is yes. It is incredible. Kudrow is so set as Valerie her every awkward flailing feels like a natural extension of the character.
Does the show seem to be in conscious dialogue with a lot of issues pertaining to women as they age?
Definitely. Especially when it comes to the references to plastic surgery, which don’t dominate the action, but given recent discussion on the issue, seems very timely.
So is that all we need to know?
Well, it’s worth noting that it’s rare to see a comedy, even an HBO comedy, get as dark as this. It’s not just a few random moments of death that become a factor; by the end of the episodes available, there’s a legit sense of tension that goes well beyond “will this HBO series-within-a-series be any good?”
“Will this HBO series be any good?” Are you trying to imply something?
Thankfully, no. There’s no doubt that what Kudrow and King have achieved here is truly great. Dark, challenging and smart on a new level.
What grade do you give it?