There’s a scene in the first episode of The Comeback’s long-awaited sophomore season where erstwhile sitcom star turned reality-show punchline Valerie Cherish (Lisa Kudrow) is forced to cold-read a monologue. Val has crashed the auditions for Seeing Red, a new HBO dramedy penned by Paulie G. (Lance Barber) about his experience directing the flop sitcom that was intended to be the strawberry-blond actress’s comeback nearly a decade earlier. When she tries to deliver a figurative “ceast” and desist, the producers coerce her into reading for the role of herself, transparently named Mallory Church. In an attempt to further humiliate her, Paulie insists that Val perform one of the more dramatic scenes, the cruel crux of which is “I’m old, I’m annoying, I’m unfuckable.” Instead, the prank humanizes her, for both viewers and, ostensibly, the execs in the room, if not Paulie.
Val continues to be a hydra-monster of all of Hollywood’s solipsistic insecurities and vanities, compounded by the fact that she’s also operating with an antiquated understanding of contemporary popular culture, struggling to adapt to a world where social media and green-screen technology are the new norms. In the nine years since the first season of The Comeback, reality TV has continued to find new and grotesque pockets of society to exploit, exemplified by Val’s brief, embarrassingly aborted run as a cast member of Bravo’s The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. When she heads to the Chateau Marmont to pitch a new version of her cancelled reality show to Andy Cohen, the network’s head of development, the restaurant host refuses to let her inside with her camera crew, inadvertently punching her in the stomach. Later, in an obvious but telling moment, Andy says, “That’s hilarious! Did you make a scene?”
Following the template of other HBO comedies (including Curb Your Enthusiasm before it and Veep after it), The Comeback has a merciless sadistic streak: There’s always the feeling that what little success or happiness Val finds will come crashing down at any minute, serving to undercut any real long-lasting catharsis for the sake of primitive laughs, usually at its heroine’s (and lead actress’s) expense. Val is rarely shown compassion, but when she is, her armor crumbles and her shrillness evaporates, revealing a devastating vulnerability. Playing the funniest, noblest version of himself, Seth Rogen is one of the few characters who extends Val any sort of kindness. Sensing the vindictiveness of a fantasy sequence in Seeing Red in which Mallory gives Paulie’s proxy, Mitch (played by Rogen), a blowjob, Seth comes to Val’s rescue, astutely observing that if the scene takes place inside Mitch’s head, the camera should remain on his face. “Gotcha, gingersnaps,” he quietly assures Val after Paulie walks away, and she beams.
Those who are the vainest, whose egos seem to be the most inflated, inevitably reveal themselves to be the most insecure, and it’s an old adage that The Comeback mines exceptionally well, offering peeks at the (nearly) likeable, relatable human being underneath Val’s phony, self-obsessed façade. When she catches a glimpse of a menacing scene in which she triumphantly tears the heroin-addicted Mitch down to size, she’s too preoccupied with the unflattering lighting to see how good she is—that is, until a New York Times writer who’s come to profile her calls her performance “brave.” It’s in these scenes that we remember that Kudrow, too, is a great dramatic actress, and while The Comeback is often boisterous and funny, it’s the quiet, more poignant moments, which are too few and far between, that resonate the loudest.