The Comeback

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.

Valerie Cherish - Lisa Kudrow Juna - Malin Akerman Tom - Robert Bagnell Paulie G - Lance Barber Mickey - Robert Michael Morris

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.

The Comeback

HBO, Sun. June 5, 9:30 p.m.

Production: Filmed in Los Angeles by Working Class and Is or Isn't Entertainment. Executive producers, Michael Patrick King, Lisa Kudrow, John Melfi, Dan Bucatinsky; co-executive producers, Linda Wallem, John Riggi; producers, Dennis Biggs, Amy Harris, Tim Gibbons; director, King; writers, King, Kudrow.

Crew: Camera, Clark Mathis; production design, Kitty Doris Bates; editor, Michael Berenbaum; casting, Meg Liberman, Cami Patton. 30 MIN.

With: Valerie Cherish - Lisa Kudrow Juna - Malin Akerman Tom - Robert Bagnell Paulie G - Lance Barber Mickey - Robert Michael Morris

More Film

  • Ordinary Justice

    Berlin: 'Ordinary Justice' Director Chiara Bellosi on Fascination With Courthouses

    Young Italian director Chiara Bellosi is at the Berlinale with “Ordinary Justice” which examines the lives of two families on opposite sides of a murder case who intersect on the benches outside the room where the case is being tried. This first work, screening in Generation14Plus, is produced by Carlo Cresto-Dina who discovered Alice Rohrwacher (“The Wonders,” “Happy [...]

  • The Invisible Man

    Elisabeth Moss in 'The Invisible Man': Film Review

    These days, the horror-fantasy thriller tends to be a junk metaphysical spook show that throws a whole lot of scary clutter at the audience — ghosts, “demons,” mad killers — without necessarily adding up to an experience that’s about anything. But in “The Invisible Man,” Leigh Whannell’s ingenious and entertaining update of a concept that’s [...]

  • Nora Arnezeder

    Berlin: Wide's Thriller 'Blast' Sold to Japan, Latin America at the EFM (EXCLUSIVE)

    “Blast,” a high-concept thriller produced and represented in international markets by Paris-based company Wide, has sold to several territories at the EFM in Berlin. Vanya Peirani-Vignes’ feature debut, “Blast” takes place Parisian parking lot where Sonia finds herself trapped in her car with her son while her boyfriend’s daughter has been left outside to deal [...]

  • digger

    Greek Director Grigorakis Saddles up 'Western' 'Digger' at Berlin

    For a feature debut that he describes as a contemporary Western, Greek director Georgis Grigorakis settled on a familiar archetype — “a lonely guy with his horse, with his shotgun” — who, in keeping with the genre’s conventions, is drawn into a confrontation and is prepared to fight to the bitter end in the defense [...]

  • North Macedonian directors Ljubo Stefanov (R)

    Berlin: 'Honeyland' Directors Prepping New Projects (EXCLUSIVE)

    Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov, the Macedonian directors of the dual Oscar-nominated documentary “Honeyland,” are prepping several new projects, Variety has learned exclusively. The directing duo are looking to build on the success of their debut, a moving portrait of a lone beekeeper struggling to preserve a traditional way of life, which was nominated for [...]

  • David-Casademunt-and-Joaquin

    Rodar y Rodar Boards “The Beast” (EXCLUSIVE)

    Barcelona-based Rodar y Rodar, producer of Spanish horror titles such as J.A. Bayona’s “The Orphanage” and Oriol Paulo’s “The Body, has thrown its weight behind David Casademunt’s “The Beast,” boarding it as its main producer. “The Beast,” which participated in Filmarket Hub’s 2017 Sitges Pitchbox event as well as Ventana Sur’s 2017 Blood Window, it [...]

  • Bad Tales

    Italy's Pepito Prods. Shines With 'Bad Tales' (EXCLUSIVE) Trailer

    Italy’s Pepito Prods., at Berlin with competition drama “Bad Tales” by Damiano and Fabio D’Innocenzo, is emerging as a new home for the country’s auteurs.  The company, headed by former RAI head of drama Agostino Saccà in January, scored more than $6 million in Italian cinemas with veteran Gianni Amelio’s “Hammamet,” a biopic of disgraced [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content