Tuesday, August 01, 2006

TV REVIEW: The Comeback

Did anybody watch this show on HBO when it aired last August? I know I didn't; but now it's back on HBO on Demand and I gave it a cautious screening yesterday. I ended up watched six episodes in a clip and staying up too late.

I've never been a huge Lisa Kudrow fan because I never understood why Friends was so damn popular while at the same time being so damn unfunny, but - no bull - this actress is amazing in this series. Truly, her performance is Emmy-worthy, even if the series has been cancelled. Her work in The Comeback is really a revelation.

For those of you who haven't watched, The Comeback is the tale of Valerie Cherish (Kudrow), once the star of a bad 1980s-1990s sitcom called "I'm It." The show ran for 97 episodes and then was dumped after audience backlash over a Rodney King joke that came too soon after the L.A. riots. It was either that, or the fact that a chimp was added to the cast in the last season...

Now, thirteen years after "I'm It," Cherish is back, simultaneously starring in a reality show called "The Comeback" and a new sitcom called "Room and Bored." Only problem is, the sitcom has suffered through a drastic re-imagining after the pilot, and instead of playing a smart condo-owner who also happens to be an architect, Valerie has been reduced to playing Aunt Sassy, an over-the-hill bitter lady whose fashion-sense runs to pastel jogging suits. Her co-stars are all horny twenty-somethings, and so Valerie is - well - out of place. Her catchphrase is "Note to self: I don't need to see that!" The sequence in which Valerie rehearses this phrase (while simultaneously eating half a chocolate cake), is wicked fun.

The Comeback is filmed via the auspices of the mockumentary format popularized by Christopher Guest and TV series such as The Office. So Valerie spends an inordinate amount of time talking to the cameras, and her life unfolds cinema-verite-style, before our very eyes. It's a slow-motion train wreck, and extremely funny.

In the pilot for instance, Valerie attempts to make a touching confession before her personal "video diary" camera set up in her bathroom. However, while she makes art before the camera, her husband Mark - just feet away - is (loudly) using the toilet. That might be low humor, but heck, it's funny.

In another episode, "Valerie Demands Dignity," Valerie is disturbed to learn (from Entertainment Weekly...) that reality tv is dead and so her producers have decided to couple her show with a new series about a midget; called "The Littlest Assistant." The sparks fly when this little person attempts to spice up Valerie's life for ratings.

In case you hadn't guessed, The Comeback is a blistering indictment of all things Hollywood. From insipid sitcoms to seedy reality shows, to star-sized egos. On that basis alone, it's a lot of fun. I especially enjoyed some of the clips of other TV shows airing on Valerie's network. There's a game show called "Take That" in which spouses earn points and win money by literally bludgeoning each other with shovels and two-by-fours. Husbands get $200,000 dollars for a blow to the wife's head...

Another show, "The Search for America's Next Great Porn Star" has a gag in it that I probably shouldn't write about. Let's just say it involves a group of aspirants running up a flight of stairs (trying to get to a bucket...) while holding some creamy material in their mouths. Whoever makes it without spitting up first is the winner of this particular contest.

I don't know why The Comeback isn't coming back. It's raw, witty and true. The comedy is carefully observed, and there's a sadness about the whole enterprise because Cherish - like David Brent - doesn't realize what a pill she is. The Comeback is a perfect companion piece for Entourage, so I don't know why HBO dumped it.

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