Executive-produced by Sex and the City’s Michael Patrick King, The Comeback is being touted as a “fictional reality show comedy hybrid series,” and while that might spell Trouble for marketers, it also presents a unique opportunity to further reinvent the dwindling sitcom genre. A B-list sitcom star herself, Valerie Cherish (Lisa Kudrow) agrees to star in a reality show documenting her “comeback” on a new network comedy series, Room and Bored, about “four sexy singles living in a condo.” After being deemed too old by the show’s inexplicably cruel writers, Valerie is recast as frumpy, track suit-wearing “Aunt Sassy,” and The Comeback quickly reveals itself to be not just a satire of the fickle, bottom-line-oriented sitcom world, but a depressing examination of sexism and ageism in Hollywood as a whole. (Add to that the skewering of the “unscripted” TV craze: “This is my reality,” Valerie says after her producer insists she act more excited about landing the part, to which the producer—who is, it should be noted, a young woman—replies: “I just think that your reality could be more exciting.”)
Thankfully, Kudrow keeps a safe distance from Phoebe Buffay, her trademark character from Friends, while retaining all of her comedic quirks: One hilarious sequence in episode one finds Valerie dutifully and repeatedly practicing a line from her pilot script (“Note to self: After a long day at work, I don’t want to see that!”) like a cross between Katherine Hepburn and Sybil. The Comeback features some clever cameos of people playing “themselves” (Friends’ James Burrows plays a sitcom director named “Jimmy” in episode one) as well as some potentially scene-stealing supporting cast members, including Lillian Hurst as Valerie’s camera-shy housekeeper. But it’s Kudrow who provides the show with its comic backbone, and the actress also gives the show heart, something Kirstie Alley couldn’t manage to do throughout the entire (painful) first season of Showtime’s Fat Actress. By episode two, you can start to see the surface of Valerie’s fragile ego begin to crack and the ultimate success of The Comeback will likely hinge on whether its writers can delve into their heroine’s sad, desperate and often endearing self-delusion while keeping the show funny.