Yet another Hollywood verite comedy specializing in moments of discomfort and humiliation, this “totally scripted” series from “Sex and the City’s” Michael Patrick King and “Friends” star Lisa Kudrow is significantly better than recent additions to the genre but less than a triumphant return. At its best, “The Comeback” provides insight into a world in which turning 40 means being cast aside in the brutal quest for the next hot thing. At its worst, it’s one more self-referential ode to a self-obsessed town on a channel that has overly indulged that impulse.
In a clever, if familiar, show-about-a-show-within-a-show conceit, Kudrow plays Valerie Cherish, a former star of a sitcom called “I’m It” whose hoped-for comeback is being chronicled by a reality TV production crew. During the opening she keeps interrupting herself by making a “timeout” signal, only to have the weasely producer remind her that letting the cameras roll, come what may, is part of the deal.
Valerie’s enthusiasm at beating out other sitcom “has-beens” (good-sport cameos by Marilu Henner and Kim Fields) proves short-lived. After being chosen, she discovers that the network decided to “go younger,” transforming a sitcom concept about thirtysomething women sharing an apartment into a quartet of twentysomethings and a “sassy” aunt, significantly reducing her role.
As a consequence, Valerie’s realization that she is no longer “it” — as director Jim Burrows, of all people, brutally informs her — unfolds in slow motion. Essentially, it’s the scripted version of TV Land’s “Chasing Farrah,” hammering home the moment when it might have dawned on the onetime bombshell that the phone had stopped ringing, and she was more a curiosity than an attraction.
In the process, King and Kudrow paint a not so flattering (but mostly accurate) portrait of reality TV, as the producers manipulate events to tell the “story” that suits them. The creative team also succumbs to some wishful thinking in the second half-hour, when an airline clerk declines to be shown on camera, muttering about reality shows, “I just think they’re over.”
The appealing elements, however, sag under the weight of other cameo-laden near-reality fare, from godfather “Curb Your Enthusiasm” to “Entourage” to “Unscripted” — and that’s just on HBO. While the indignities faced by actresses over 40 are well documented, positioning Kudrow as a poster child for them, even in character, won’t cause many to pull out the hankies and violins.
Granted, Kudrow is gifted and believable enough to sell Valerie as more than just her alter ego, but there are other hurdles, as “Comeback” delivers few laughs. In fact, the strongest sequences possess a humanity sorely lacking in something like Showtime’s “Fat Actress,” which covers similar territory — focusing on a not quite over-the-hill star — in unrelentingly over-the-top fashion. That isn’t to say this series completely avoids such flourishes, from Valerie’s non-pro hubby taking a loud just-off-camera dump to winsome co-star Juna (Malin Akerman) and her perpetually pert nipples.
“The Comeback” is clearly well versed in the transitory nature of stardom and inner workings of Hollywood (a network “upfront” presentation sounds eerily accurate), but those are hardly breakthrough observations, and the show’s satirical jumping-off point — celebrity-centered “reality” and mockery of showbiz conventions — feels pretty well saturated.
In short, King and Kudrow may be visiting this city too late, given that it’s already populated by a surplus of friends.