If comedy equals tragedy plus time, comedy’s mockumentary subgenre often subtracts the time right back out again, reveling in its characters’ awkward, trainwreck moments. At its most vicious, this genre isn’t for everybody; perhaps that’s why The Comeback, a one-season HBO series that aggressively skewers the surfacey fakeness of Hollywood celebrity culture and reality TV, didn’t find a huge audience. Following on the heels of the genre’s pioneers Christopher Guest and Ricky Gervais, Lisa Kudrow takes a similar hyphenate (actor-writer-producer) turn, and it’s quite a solid effort, an overlooked bridge show from the genre’s early days to its current ubiquitous dominance of the comedy landscape. (A landscape, incidentally, The Comeback is set to rejoin soon thanks to an unlikely, nine-years-removed resurrection.)
Kudrow plays Valerie Cherish, a third-rate Hollywood celebrity who made a brief splash in the early nineties in a sitcom called I’m It. Determined to crawl back into the spotlight, she finally gets her chance, years later, on two shows at once: a puerile new sitcom called Room and Bored, and a concurrent reality series about her return to network television called The Comeback. (If that’s not meta enough for you, the Comeback we’re watching is actually assembled from the raw footage of the fictional Comeback.) Followed at all times by a quietly manipulative film crew, Valerie struggles valiantly to smile and charm her way through every awkward situation, whether it be an oversensitive co-star, a ratings disappointment, network interference, or an uncomfortable red-carpet outfit. Her cheery, publicity-hungry surface conceals a tragically fragile ego, which meets its strongest challenge in the form of the hot, young spotlight-stealing star of Room and Bored, Juna (Malin Akerman). No, Valerie isn’t “it” any more, and making things worse, she’s utterly reviled by crass asshole writer-producer Paulie G (Lance Barber), who continually works to humiliate Valerie and undermine her potential stardom.
As ahead of the mockumentary curve as it was, The Comeback is hardly groundbreaking material, its impact probably diluted even moreso by the preponderance of similar shows that have followed in its wake. But it’s still worth watching, both as a savage, convincing satire of Hollywood banality and as a sensational acting vehicle for Kudrow. From Valerie’s superficial highs to her horrible, exisential lows, Kudrow carries the day, managing to be both irritating enough to make the abuse she suffers understandable, and sweetly human enough to be accessible and sympathetic. With the exception of Akerman’s unabashedly airheaded Juna, the support is understated and realistic. Particularly good is Barber as Paulie G, who may be the most realistic L.A. asshole ever filmed. (I’ve totally met that guy.)
It’s hardly riveting stuff, and I often wondered, Is this show really doing anything? Hollywood in general, and reality shows in particular, are deserving targets, but they’re also pretty easy ones. That creeping question made this partially a background show for me, especially early. But the episodes have a subtle, cumulative effect, and mixed in with all its awkward moments, pregnant silences, and technical difficulties are some priceless little character moments from Kudrow. The later installments work in some unexpected drama, and the season resolves in a brilliantly cynical closer that neatly ties everything together and puts an exclamation point on the message. Undoubtedly some folks will bounce right off of this one, but all things considered it strikes me as an unjustly overlooked series in the recent mockumentary craze.