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The Comeback

The Comeback, 2005/2014–, production still from a TV show on HBO. Season 2, episode 19. Valerie Cherish (Lisa Kudrow). Photo: Colleen Hayes.

CREATED BY LISA KUDROW and Michael Patrick King, the first season of The Comeback aired on HBO in fall 2005, at the dawn of the empire of reality television. Its sun is Valerie Cherish, a middle-aged actress, played by Kudrow, whose claim to vanishing fame is headlining a network office sitcom in the early 1990s. Shrilly existential, like Valerie, that show was called I’m It!, and the actress clings to its vestiges as she labors to find continued work, i.e., attention, i.e., meaning, in a world that keeps spinning regardless of whether she’s in it. A critical darling with a cult following, The Comeback was canceled after its initial season, then lived up to its name this past November, when HBO resurrected it after a nine-year hiatus.

In the first season, Valerie auditions for a hot new sitcom, Room and Bored, and gets the part, only to find that her place among the stars is now in the role of matronly aunt. Meanwhile, HBO films a companion reality show about Valerie’s comeback called The Comeback. In this dizzying mise en abyme, the audience sees footage from the in-show reality show presented as raw outtakes, when in fact everything that transpires on-screen is trenchant satire, scripted and edited. Valerie’s antagonist is Paulie G., Room and Bored’s head writer. His only use for her is to demean her for comedic effect, and while she relishes the snickers she can wrest from the American public, the nature of her humiliation and inner turmoil, which is only rarely avowed, becomes the focus of both Comebacks.

When the series debuted, American Idol had already taken hold as the number-one-rated television show in the US, and niche contest shows like America’s Next Top Model and Project Runway were on the rise. But reality TV had not yet metastasized to the extent that it did after the 2007–2008 Writers Guild of America strike, as the programming and brands of most stations were subsumed by a new class of celebrities famous for playing themselves. Take, for example, The Real Housewives of Orange County, that anthropologically tinted study of affluent women in SoCal acting out their fantasies of starring in their own soap opera—a different kind of contest show, whose rules of play are disguised in human relationships and social mores. Testifying to The Comeback’s prescience, Real Housewives premiered only a few months after the former concluded, in the spring of 2006. It has since grown into an internationally franchised ecosystem of dozens of notorious women who appear to be equally actualized and anguished in their recursive surrealities.

The second season of The Comeback, which finished in December, begins with Valerie recording B-roll that she intends to use in a pitch to Andy Cohen, the real-life producer of the Housewives programs. A winged messenger in the form of her publicist arrives to tell her that Paulie G. has resurfaced with a memoir (called Seeing Red) that is being adapted into an HBO dramedy about the agony of writing Room and Bored as he struggled with addiction and was menaced by an actress named Mallory Church, who, like Valerie Cherish, is a strawberry blonde. After she arrives at the network and sees twenty or so actresses in tracksuits and reddish Farrah Fawcett hairdos, Valerie quickly drops her cease and desist, picks up a script, and reads for the part of herself, herself.

The disquieting monologue that ensues is a matryoshka doll of metaperformances. Plodding through self-torture, Valerie stumbles over the last line: “You and everyone in the television business can’t see me as desirable, but there are plenty of men out there who would still want to fuck an old lady like me.” She exits the room, and a lavalier mike left behind by her reality crew picks up a jury member’s stunned reaction: “I don’t know what that was, but I’ve gotta have more of it.”

Like the characters on Housewives-style shows, Valerie’s compulsion to work is not linked with survival; her station in the 1 percent is secure. The hilarity stems from the zealous desperation she puts into everything she does, from yoga to red carpets. As she blithely tramples over all the well-meaning, often working-class people who stand in her way (or try to help her), she embodies the uncomfortable striving of a certain breed of successful American in a damned society.

The show’s pathos, however, lies in the void between Valerie’s compacted humanity and the vacuum of absurdity through which she hurtles, like a diamond caught in a black hole. At no point in the series is this more palpable than when she arrives at a taping of Seeing Red and learns the entire scene will be shot on green screen. Alone in a neon-lime gymnasium, Valerie finds her costars replaced by tripods; X’s drawn in tape are her only means of spatial orientation. The lone live element is a lofted studio audience, who chortle on command as she confusedly acts out the director’s instructions. The result is a Ryan Trecartin–esque scene in which drama is evinced not through the evolution of an ostensible plot but via performers’ anxieties as they discover their lack of agency within supermediated, gamelike environments.

Its narrative unities coming undone faster than Valerie’s blowout, the show echoes the durational warpings seen in any number of recent films, the most extreme example being Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (2014), which was twelve years in the making as it tracked the simultaneous aging of its characters and actors. The Comeback’s own unplanned comeback features its main players nine years in the future—that is, in the present. When Valerie is reduced to an everywoman shattered by hubris, the visceral passage of time is the realest thing remaining of her, an uncanny reminder of what it is like to be human at a moment when that genre of being is in danger of cancellation.

Kevin McGarry is a writer and curator in Los Angeles.