Lisa Kudrow’s The Comeback is designed to make viewers feel squeamish—slightly repulsed—and does a damn good job of it. To judge from ratings, critics (including my colleague, Kurt Andersen), and the opinion of her HBO employer (“It’s a challenging show to watch,” said chief exec Chris Albrecht last week; add the implied “cough-cough”), the half-hour is far less popular than its time-slot sibling, Entourage. Which is why it’s about time someone defended the embattled series, and it might as well be me: I enjoy hugging it out with Jeremy Piven and his boys as much as the next subscriber, but when it comes to savoring a series that’s really reaching—in the best sense—The Comeback is far more ambitious than it’s getting credit for.
In the show, Kudrow plays Valerie Cherish, former star of the fictional seventies sitcom I’m It, an actress so desperate to return to glory that she agrees to a supporting role on a smutty-giggle network series—and then lets a reality-TV camera crew follow her around, so that we witness her struggles from their brutally intrusive POV. This premise has flaws: Its targets are a mite off, for one, since Valerie’s new sitcom is a Three’s Company–like throwback that seems unlikely to air in 2005 (then again, ABC did program 8 Simple Rules). And many have complained that its greater flaw is that you can watch an entire episode without laughing.
But really, it’s wrong to see the show as a comedy in the first place. The Comeback may be set on a sitcom, but it’s strongest as drama: Kudrow’s boldly fatuous, grinning-through-the-humiliation performance is superlatively nuanced. So is the show’s portrayal of an unlikable, arrogant young writing staff. And the series’ secret weapon is veteran sitcom director James Burrows, stunningly good at playing himself. Recently, Burrows took Valerie aside and told her to stop badgering the writers for more airtime, because otherwise, he murmured, “ ‘The Hate Show’ will begin.” In other words, the writers would turn on Valerie and freeze her out. Burrows’s brutally honest common sense collided with Valerie’s refusal to obey (Val may be desperate, but Kudrow keeps her percolating with simmering resentment). You couldn’t watch without feeling your palms sweat. Which to me was a pure visceral revelation: Despite her self-absorption, Valerie is both kind and, in her own way, dignified—which makes her truly vulnerable to the forces that are working to destroy her career (and therefore, because it’s Hollywood, her life). I don’t know if “The Hate Show” is fictional inside-biz lingo or not, but by that point, The Comeback had become my Love Show.