Prescient in several key respects, “The Comeback” felt a tad inside baseball when it made its debut in 2005, chronicling the misadventures of a desperately needy sitcom star, seeking rebirth through a reality show and what turned out to be secondary part in a new comedy. Frequently aggravating, the series nevertheless ended on a perfectly attuned note, cleverly charting a path toward media career reclamation that came through abject humiliation. HBO has rather boldly revived the concept, but the new episodes don’t really advance the ball — reflecting a project so meta and self-referential as to risk swallowing its own tail.
Once again, Lisa Kudrow (who shares exec producing credit with “Sex and the City’s” Michael Patrick King and Dan Bucatinsky) plays the pinched-voice Valerie Cherish, whose perpetual smile scarcely masks her maddening mix of insecurity and entitlement, and only accentuates her total lack of self-awareness. The extended premiere does its best to bring viewers up to speed on what’s transpired in Valerie’s world during the intervening years, but suffice it to say, those lacking the original point of reference would best be advised not to bother now.
As it happens, Valerie’s career has followed a familiar if depressing path, consisting of guest shots on TV procedurals, infomercials for a product that didn’t sell, and a student (sorry, “independent”) film. So she’s enlisted a camera crew of novices to document her every move, hoping that might lead to a show on Bravo, to the point of practically stalking network exec-turned-on-air host Andy Cohen. “I get it now,” she seeks to assure him, while interrupting his lunch.
Valerie’s reverie, however, is thrown for a loop when she learns that the abusive producer from her earlier show, Paulie G. (Lance Barber), has sold a series to HBO about his experience writing their sitcom while being a heroin addict. Moreover, the title “Seeing Red” and a shrewish character sound like direct references to her.
Without much of a plan, Valerie storms into HBO to register her concerns, only to be invited to read for the part, leading to an improbable reunion. And while Paulie G. is on the wagon, his aloof posture toward Valerie only feeds her perpetual unease, even if she receives a more welcoming response from the actor cast in the Paulie role, Seth Rogen (playing a very cuddly version of himself), one of many notable cameos.
More than anything, “The Comeback” is built around moments of profound discomfort, which often require Valerie to be so utterly tone-deaf as to elicit no sympathy for her plight. That combination can make the series intriguing and frustrating in equal measure, which if nothing else establishes it as an appropriate companion to “The Newsroom.”
Kudrow’s performance as an aging sitcom star clinging to better days feels more pointed now than it did coming close on the heels of “Friends,” and she’s distinguished herself among her former castmates by generating niche projects for herself, like “Web Therapy,” even if the rewards have been relatively modest.
“The Comeback” wasn’t particularly successful in its first go-round, and a pairing with the understated “Getting On” doesn’t promise to be much of a ratings grabber now. Yet the series has earned cultish devotion, and its return nearly a decade later says as much about diminished ratings expectations within the cable universe as it does about the program.
It’s only too bad the producers have hewed so closely to the original formula, as opposed to taking a chance by, say, dramatically altering Valerie’s circumstances.
Ultimately, there’s enough meat here to engender morbid curiosity on where Valerie’s latest journey back into the maw of the beast will lead. Other than a rarefied slice of media mavens and those few aforementioned devotees, though, to borrow Valerie’s early catchphrase in assessing this latest “Comeback,” I’m not sure you need to see that.