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September 18, 2007

DVD Journal: "The Comeback"

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Inspired by Mike Hill, who wrote the excellent blog Sluggo Needs a Nap until real life demanded his attention, I picked up a copy of HBO's Lisa Kudrow vehicle "The Comeback." Over the weekend The Wife and I opened the package up and dug in.

We watched the whole thing too, I'm pleased to report, even though we aren't TV-series fans generally. We didn't make it through out of duty and curiosity, either, as we did with Joss Whedon's "Firefly." We were genuinely held, even though we found it a pretty painful experience, and not entirely in the painful-good way that the show's creators intended.

Still, we genuinely loved a lot of things about "The Comeback." For one, we're both big fans of satire, which strikes both of us as one of the ultimate art challenges. (You're aware, aren't you, that Americans are notorious for having a hard time with satire? George S. Kaufman: "Satire is what closes on Saturday night." We're too square to enjoy stylish malice; we're too eager to identify with heroes to want to follow people who are being made fun of. Exceptions allowed for, of course.) And "The Comeback" is nothing if not a stylish high-wire act. But part of what kept us watching was trying to figure out where the show had gone wrong. (It never gained much of an audience, and HBO canceled it after just one season.) That may be a weird reason for finding a show compelling, but there you go.

A small aside: This strikes me as an example of one of the kinds of culture-experiences that traditional criticism and reviewing aren't good at dealing with. The pro reviewer has to read or listen to or watch the work under consideration all the way through. We'd throw tomatoes at him if he didn't. Yet a lot of the viewing and reading and listening we do is half-assed, fragmentary, incomplete. Should it be off-limits to compare notes about these experiences? Let alone to treat them with some respect? I can't see why.

It strikes me as a legitimate, and certainly a commonplace, part of culture life -- the book we leafed around in at the bookstore, the movie we fast-forwarded through, the music we half-listened to at the gym. Openly acknowledging and discussing this aspect of interacting-with-culture is one of the ways that the blogosophere has enriched the general culture-discussion. For example, Yahmdallah here does a good job of discussing a book he both disliked and felt some enthusiasm for. "Compelling yet boring" -- Yahmdallah's words -- is something certain artworks have struck me as too. Yet how many pro critics have taken such a reaction into account?

Anyway. Created by the actress Lisa Kudrow (who stars) and the writer-director Michael Patrick King (well-known for his work on "Sex and the City"), "The Comeback" puts loads of virtuosity, brains, humor, perceptiveness, and talent on display. As well as daring. It's a far more audacious and complex piece of audiovisual-narrative-through-time entertainment than you'll run across at movie theaters these days.

Do you know the show's premise? Kudrow plays Valerie Cherish, an actress who enjoyed a few years of minor celebrity as the co-star of a hit sitcom back in the 1980s. Although she's married now to a successful Beverly Hills businessman, she's nonetheless determined to prevail once again on TV, and is doing what she can to make it onto the cast of a new sitcom. Meanwhile, she's also the subject of a reality-TV show called "The Comeback," which is documenting her attempts to succeed.

So the show you're watching is at work on a number of levels. There's the sitcom Valerie is trying to land. There's the reality show she's the subject of. There's the unseen goings-on at the ever-terrifying "network," where the real decisions are made. There's the reality-"reality" that encompasses all the above.

And there's another level too: Valerie's version of reality. Valerie has a completely delusionary concept of herself. In her own mind, Valerie's quite a star -- a onetime America's sweetheart who won the People's Choice Award. But to the rest of the world she's a forgotten pop-culture footnote, if that. A lot of "The Comeback" is spent watching Valerie's fragile / adamantine ego contend with the indignities she encounters as she struggles to claw her way back onto the pop-cult scorecard.

Valerie luvvvvvs her fans

It's a semi-seriously intended pretext of the show that we're being shown raw footage taken by the reality-TV show crew (who are themselves characters in the show we're watching, of course). The reality crew is a big part of "The Comeback," in fact. The camera crew has to hustle into a room before Valerie does in order to be able to record her entrance. The show's producer becomes an important, and perhaps sinister, part of Valerie's life.

These ricocheting "realities" are an effective way of conveying a media-constructed hall of mirrors. They're also a good way of dramatizing the current moment in media history, in the form here of a war between sitcoms (old media) and reality-TV (new media). The show is smart in many ways about the way the culture has been evolving. One example among many: the way so many TV writers these days -- so many of the creators of crap TV -- are entitled Ivy League brats.

It's all pretty complex and daring, in other words -- one in a line of sophisticated "what's real and what's not?" TV shows about how the media construct reality that includes Robert Altman's "Tanner '88" and Garry Shandling's "The Larry Sanders Show."

The series originated with Kudrow. An actress with a background in improv, Kudrow had come up with and developed the Valerie Cherish character on her own. Valerie is quite something. She's eager to be known as a good sport, a positive person, and a team player. Yet she's also almost sociopathically desperate for attention, applause, recognition, and love. She needs to know -- over and over and over again -- that she's making everyone happy. In the show, Valerie is always doing her best to smile and wave away rejection.

She's also a creature from another era -- an era when a performer had some control over the way the camera took her. In the present day, though, Valerie looks like a control freak. She wants to be nice, she wants to be found cute and sexy, she wants to be recognized as a legend, she wants to be a professional entertainer, she wants to be where it's all happening ... She wants to play along with the whole spontaneity / reality thing, yet she wants it to come out a certain way. She's being yanked in five different directions by her impulses, and taking pie after pie in the face from the rude and crass new world of TV and celebrity that she's encountering: raunchy young starlets, audiences craving hurt and embarrassment, the omnipresent media ...

Kudrow met with Michael Patrick King and showed him Valerie; King thought he saw a way of setting the Valerie character up and showing her off in a TV series. King brought some writing buddies from "Sex and the City" on board, and with Kudrow participating as well they whipped up a pilot and then, once HBO picked it up, a first season of shows.

The series has many, many virtues. It's an inventive and resourceful piece of TV-making; each episode is brimful of wonderful wardrobe, decor, casting, camera, and performance choices. Much of the moment-to-moment, detail work -- behavior, staging, acting -- is really inspired. The show is as full of grace notes, inside jokes, and micro bits of perception and wit as a good Altman movie. And wouldn't Kudrow -- who is all quirks, emotional translucency, high style, and indiosyncratic beauty -- have been a perfect Altman actress?

Still, despite its many strengths, I can see why the show wasn't renewed. It's excruciating watching Valerie be subjected to humiliation after humiliation. Many of the comedowns that she's dealt are good inventions, and it's good fun as well watching Kudrow's Valerie working as hard as she can to turn all the humiliations into positives. But the way the humiliations pile on seems unnecessarily relentless. The ridicule seems out of all proportion to the target.

The excruciatingness got the Wife and me thinking about satire ... Why do some satires work while others flop? Hard to say, of course. But one thing that can help is when the creatures being ridicucled are also granted a lot in the way of stature. The fool may be ridiculous, but he's also a king. The vain woman may merit razzing, but she does know how to get away with murder. "The Comeback" also got us marveling at what miracles the Altman films that do work are. Although Altman was primariliy a satirist, he almost always seemed to have had an instinct for the way that the characters that were his targets needed their own grandeur and accomplishments. He didn't just mock; he also celebrated.

Valerie, by contrast, isn't allowed a thing. Life just shits on her, over and over. When she finally is granted a bit of something, it's only after six hours have gone by -- it's a very long time coming.

My theory is that the show's creators got themselves so caught up in figuring out how to showcase Valerie that they lost their perspective on the effect their work was having. They talked themselves into thinking that Valerie was worthy of all the arrows they shoot at her. But to this spectator anyway Valerie seems like nothing more than a vain, silly woman. She's harmless. So you watch the show wondering why she's being attacked with the kind of obsessive glee that's usually reserved for mockery of a Presidential candidate. She isn't even made to stand for anything worth throwing mud at. She isn't presented, for example, as "the spirit of showbusiness," or any such thing. She's just Valerie. I'm glad I'm not married to her; she'd be the ultimate high-maintenance wife. But she hardly seems like something worth spending six hours attacking. She's even kind of cute. The effect of all this is like watching a sharpshooter machine-gun a chipmunk.

I think this lack of perspective helps explain some of the show's other lapses too. For example: Why and when did Valerie decide to come out of retirement? You never find out. How has she spent the time since her hit sitcom? She's a complete blank where the last 20 years go. She seems to have watched no TV and to have read no papers; she doesn't even seem to have had any showbiz friends. In fact, she seems a bit Ichabod Crane-like. Perhaps she fell asleep in 1989 and only just now reawakened? And what's with the echoes of the 1970s? Though we're told that Valerie's hit show ran in the late 1980s, she herself seems like a creature out of the "Three's Company" era. She even favors '70s-style gaudy-hippie clothing and hair. If a point is being made by this, I couldn't tell what it was.

In fact, the show hardly registers at all on anything but the micro level. Almost no characters are arc'd, even in a mock way. And there's no narrative form that's being parodied, leaned-on, or ribbed. So the show really is just one moment after another. Compare this to the first season of "The Sopranos," where the story elements clicked into place like they do in a well-laid-out novel. What you didn't even realize was a set-up in episode four turns out to pay off in episode nine, that kind of thing. The writers here dreamed up pretexts for the episodes of "The Comeback," of course. But, watching the show, it feels as though the writers were doing little but figuring out new ways to make fun of Valerie. If you can imagine Altman's "The Player" minus the murder-mystery plot that binds all the behaviors and perceptions together, you'd be coming close to "The Comeback."

Nothing wrong with this, of course -- I like the sketch form a lot. But a sketch that runs for six hours could use some development too, even if it's only of a parodistic kind. One example of how the series' approach disappoints: The writers give Valerie a solid, grounded husband. He's a businessguy who's amused by and fond of his high-strung, flakey charmer of a wife. This is a shrewd choice; this solid guy with his down-to-earth values sets off Valerie's vanity and showbizzy-ness very effectively. Yet a key scene goes missing. If the hubby is the voice of sanity and reason, why does he never once try to force a conversation with Valerie about what she's putting both of them through? After seeing his beloved wife endure humiliation after humiliation, why does he never try to say, "Val, you don't have to be doing this. We have money enough for five families"?

Which leads to another, even more basic, element that perplexes: Valerie just doesn't seem like any actress I've ever known. She's flighty, vain, infuriating, and sometimes charming -- and god knows that's a real actress combo of attributes. But she's also a control freak, and a prim woman who's uneasy with naughty words and naughty behavior. Wha'? As a general rule, actresses are remarkable for their lack of inhibitions, to put it mildly. However delicate their appearance and however hyper-sensitive their "instrument," actresses generally love dirty jokes, have big raucous laughs, and feel most themselves when they're half-naked, teasing, breaking hearts, and rolling in the sack. I'm sure there are a few exceptions among them, but the "prim as my midwestern aunt" type isn't one I've run into yet. (I confess that I did wonder a few times, though, if the Valerie character had been inspired by Shelley Long ...)

So what is being satirized finally? Given how uncommon a type Valerie is, I found myself wondering ... Well, does the show even qualify as a satire at all?

My guess is that the show's creative team got so far into their creative process that they made a classic mistake; they talked themselves into thinking that they were doing something more daring than satire -- that they were going beyond satire into a kind of theater of unease, that their material and talent demanded that they enter into conceptual, Andy-Kaufman-at-his-weirdest territory. You say you're squirming, wincing, and recoiling from our work? Why, that's proof that we're being effective!

Too bad. Had the creators put a little more energy into basic questions of shapes and storylines, "The Comeback" would have made a nifty satire. Still: Tons of great work. And perhaps the DVD version of the show will become a cult legend. Amazon viewer-reviewers have certainly expressed a lot of enthusiasm for the series.

Semi-related: I wrote about Robert Altman and his films here, here, here, and here.

Thanks to Mike Hill for letting me know about "The Comeback."



posted by Michael at September 18, 2007


Great review, MB. "The effect of all this is like watching a sharpshooter machine-gun a chipmunk" - that applies to lots of so-called modern "satire" I've seen recently - I ususally end up feeling a little sorry for the putative object of scorn...

Posted by: tschafer on September 18, 2007 4:59 PM

Speaking of levels, there is also Kudrow trying to make a comeback.

Posted by: Tom on September 18, 2007 5:34 PM

Christopher Guest is another satirist that brings to mind the "machine-gunning a chipmunk" image, in pictures like Waiting for Guffman. I know some have argued that Guest shows affection for his targets, but it always struck me as condescension.

Based on your description alone, I'd argue that early Paul Mazursky would be an even better director for this material than Altman. He pulled off satire + affection better than just about anybody, in movies like Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, Next Stop Greenwich Village, and Down and Out in Beverly Hills.

Posted by: Steve on September 18, 2007 6:53 PM

" of unease."

That was the whole problem with the show. With the exception of show biz folk, many of whom do live their lives at the level of perpetual panic evinced in The Comeback, who else would willingly watch a so called comedy designed to rev up the viewer's anxiety, week after week after week?

Posted by: ricpic on September 18, 2007 8:24 PM

The Comeback was a unique show in that I felt compelled to watch week after week while my wife couldn't even be in the room while it was on. Things evolved to a point where I would watch the show late at night after she'd turned in -- and the next day I'd recount each episode in detail. Paulie G, the head writer of Valerie's sitcom, was an amazingly loathsome character even though he said almost nothing.

Posted by: Vince on September 18, 2007 10:42 PM

"And there's no narrative form that's being parodied, leaned-on, or ribbed. So the show really is just one moment after another."

Spot-on review, MB. I really liked this show for the most part--so deliciously excruciating, so hilarious. And yet...

Trust me--there are great, clueless wonders like Valerie Cherish out here, even down to Hiding the Sexy. (I have a feeling old Val got it on just fine when the lights were low.)

I just wish there had been more moments like Val singing "I Will Survive" over the end credits. That is one funny broad--Kudrow, I mean.

Posted by: communicatrix on September 18, 2007 11:35 PM

Good call on Mazursky, Steve. I was thinking of him as well. I love Mazursky.

For me, the gold standard for affectionate satirists is Preston Sturges. He constantly has it both ways in his best movies, allowing the characters to make extreme fools of themselves yet inviting us to love them as well.

I'm not sure how he managed to do that successfully, and sometimes he makes it seem a sort of magic trick. You look back on Hail the Conquering Hero and puzzle over what hit you harder, the criticism of small-town American patriotism or the appreciation of it. Sturges presents it as a thing both terrifying and reassuring--which, come to think of it, probably mirrors the conflicted feelings held by most of us.

It's probably trite to say this, but I think a good satirist needs to love (or at least appreciate) his target, and he needs to allow it room to breathe--to stretch out and grow in unusual ways. The target needs to surprise us, entertain us and keep us on our toes in ways we weren't quite expecting. If it seems predictable or pinned-down the game set up by the satirist can feel like shooting fish in a barrel, which is no fun at all.

One of the great things about Nashville is that most of the characters, even some of the most manufactured ones, end up moving or surprising you in unexpected ways. That's essential to Altman in general, of course, and it's that love of eccentricity--of flamboyance, risk-taking and bravado--that made some of his most stinging satires tolerable at the human level. You felt that Altman was holding these people up for your appreciation even as he was zinging them.


Posted by: Ron on September 19, 2007 8:38 AM

The show baffled me like a plate of cold spagetti. Undesnarlable. Which is why I dangled it in front of you hoping for an extended exegesis. Thank you.

I think the trickiest part of satire is establishing the POV. Removed, dry and composed, certainly, but never disinterested. It requires specificity and consistancy. It forces a wide set of assumptions on the viewer or reader and if those assumptions are outside the viewers experience or if they shift in any way it becomes simply abuse.

Concerning the lack of proportion with which Valarie is Jobed by the gods I think ricpic has his finger on it. The show makes awful sense to an actor (my wife sees nothing satirical whatever in it) but the makers left the Satirist's POV inside the malice of the industry and thus nothing larger was sought or found.

Posted by: Sluggo on September 19, 2007 1:13 PM

MB, have you seen the BBC sitcom "I'm Alan Partridge"? You might find it an interesting point of comparison. It's about a smarmy, two-bit talk show host whose comeback attempts are thwarted by his own monstrous narcissism. Because it's a sitcom, it's less ambitious than "The Comeback," but it does have something "The Comeback" is lacking: a more worthy object of ridicule.

Posted by: Jeff on September 19, 2007 3:41 PM

Andy Kaufman is a great hat tip in this post -- watching that wacko at work, you so often had to resist the urge to bolt. I hated his act until one single epiphanous moment while watching him take an ass beating on late-night TV. From there, I was a fan for life.

Another "Comeback" forefather: Claes Oldenburg, making a 20-foot face-first dive onto the pavement for art.

The best moments for me are when former hottie Valerie deals with the babes-of-the-moment in her cast. (Kudrow's relative lack of attractiveness another absurdity in the show.)

And, of course, the real HBO show was pulled from the air. Someone could do a master's thesis on the levels of media- wasteland irony at work here.

Posted by: Glenn Abel on September 20, 2007 3:31 AM

Wonderful post, although I never saw the show. Based on your description, the Shelley Long nod sounds accurate (including the grounded business-man husband). Unfortunately, Long's husband finally left her, because I think the attempts at the why-are-you-putting-yourself-and-us-through-this? conversations never worked. It might have been more real (and perhaps more painful) if they had shown that people like Valerie don't listen---they'll lose their marriage rather than give up on what they want life to be. Also, I agree with you---it's not just that she doesn't sound deserving of continuously being the butt of the joke, but more to the point, doesn't sound interesting enough to be it. People who get continuously shafted often strike humor in the tantrum they display at the shaft--either their own reaction is so arrogant as to be funny (George Costanza on "Seinfeld"), or its so honest as to be funny. I remember when Meryl Steep (whose character is a minor actress who was promising once before she became a cokehead) is told in "Postcards from the Edge" that her manager has absconded to South America with all her money. When her mother first says she has something to tell her, Meryl Streep says, "What? You dreamt I lost some weight? Endorsed a line of clothing?" Then when told about her manager, she says "Gee, I'm so glad I got sober now, so I could be hyper-concious for this series of humiliations." It's funny, because everybody has felt that way, at least one day in their life.

To me, the humor is absent if Streep smiles like a Stepford wife and tries to make it all sunshine-y. She stops being anyone you can relate to at all, and seems so bland and wierd as to make you not really care what happens to her.

Posted by: annette on September 20, 2007 9:34 AM

I couldn't stand this show. One note all the time: see Kudrow get embarrassed somehow or the other.

Posted by: jult52 on September 21, 2007 5:34 AM

You write: "Yet a lot of the viewing and reading and listening we do is half-assed, fragmentary, incomplete."

A tiny point but shouldn't that be "incomplete, fragmentary, half-assed"?

Posted by: do on September 24, 2007 4:49 PM

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