November 6, 2014
Long before Honey Boo Boo told the world she’d holla for a dolla or introduced viewers to Go Go Juice and Sketti; years ahead of Teresa Giudice flipping dining-room tables, making tax fraud seem trendy, or requesting jail sentences be served at prisons featured on TV shows; and way before anyone had even considered whether they wanted to keep up with a Kardashian (let alone buy an entire makeup or clothing line from them), there was Valerie Cherish.
When The Comeback debuted on HBO in 2005, it was so ahead of the reality-TV curve that few viewers understood its biting social commentary or believed people would stoop so low as to tune into shows that did little more than have cameras follow around a rich D-List celebrity 24/7. Since then, the mere definition of celebrity has expanded to include names like Omarosa Manigault, Bethenny Frankel, Adam Lambert, Snooki, The Situation, and Kate Gosselin. Welcome to the not-so-golden age of television.
Who knew that audiences would devour it? Or that people—women in particular—would actually allow every facet of their daily lives to be documented, opening the floodgates for the practical abolition of privacy and endorsement of bad behavior?
Lisa Kudrow and her Comeback co-creator, Michael Patrick King (Sex and the City), knew. Hot off a decade-long stint on Friends, Kudrow brought to Valerie Cherish a rare brand of awkwardness that made her painful to watch and yet compelling and brilliantly memorable.
The premise of the scripted series was simple, if not meta: In a bid to resurrect her career after being out of the spotlight for a prolonged period of time, washed-up sitcom actress Valerie lands a gig on a new network comedy, Room and Bored. Simultaneously, she allows a film crew to capture her every move at work and home in order to document this epic “comeback.” But while Valerie believes she has taken the starring role as one of Bored’s three female roommates, she quickly discovers it isn’t her show. Her roommates are twentysomethings (played by Malin Akerman and Kimberly Kevon Williams), and before the first episode even shoots, the producers recast Valerie’s role into the older, sweat suit-wearing Aunt Sassy, whose single line is a disapproving catchphrase. And every cringeworthy behind-the-scenes moment is captured on film.
In a bid to convey the satire, the original publicity poster for The Comeback (designed by Kudrow and King), featured Valerie decked out in her sparkly eveningwear best while standing in a meat grinder, happily churning herself out for the reality-TV machine. Onscreen, a sad new type of woman was mugging for the camera.
Reality “scenes” that have become commonplace nowadays, such as public spats (complete with wine-throwing), intimate marital problems, or women pretending to be besties with their hired stylists or hairdressers was “groundbreaking” in 2005. After all, this was the same era that Jeff Probst was trying to forget Rock & Roll Jeopardy. Donald Trump’s hair had become a topic of discussion with a new show called The Apprentice (the original, not the celebrity-slinging update). Viewers still thought Phil Keoghan’s American accent was real, Chris Harrison still believed in love, and the riskiest reality shows of the past five years included one-off farces like Temptation Island or Joe Millionaire.
The first season of The Comeback featured all that and more.
Throughout the 13 inaugural episodes, Valerie is frequently motioning for a “time-out” to the mysterious crew when things don’t go her way, asking the off-screen producer Jane (Laura Silverman) if they can cut scenes or redo specific takes—a request she’s rarely granted. On the flip side, Valerie is consistently asked to retake scenes in order to convey what’s happened off-screen, or to instantaneously react to humiliating situations she encounters in her bid to be in the spotlight. Such as the time she catches the writers dressing up as her and pretending to engage in sexual acts, or upon being stood up by a co-star for dinner.
There are plenty of embarrassing situations for confessional-style interviews as well. From awkward work encounters with producers who clearly despise her to a family who doesn’t quite get it (the step-daughter becomes Val’s new BFF in hopes of fame; her husband talks about cocaine and leaves pornographic tapes around), nothing was off limits. Well, almost nothing.
In one scene we learn that Val and her husband (Damian Young) have been using the bathroom—the one place without cameras—to continue their now-strained sex life. Behind-the-scenes, other situations just never made it out of the writers’ room.
“When we did the first series, we thought it would be so great if Valerie went into therapy with reality cameras,” Kudrow explained at a press conference recently. “And we went, ‘That’s too far.’”
Fast-forward to today, and plenty of women have opened their therapy sessions to viewers, like Tori Spelling and Dean McDermott, whose crumbling marriage and subsequent counseling sessions became instant fodder for their latest reality foray, True Tori. And Jon Gosselin telling press that he’s “open” to filming couples therapy with his ex, Kate Gosselin.
The Comeback only lasted one season (but earned three Emmy nominations) before being cancelled on HBO. In 2005, people still needed an explanation as to why a woman without financial problems would put herself in harm’s way in front of a camera. A decade later, no one shrugs when a Young and the Restless star joins The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. Women on The Jersey Shore got into catfights, imbibed until they’re blindly drunk, and acted promiscuously, and were rewarded with a successful spinoff series that lasted four seasons. A woman can be a runner-up on Martha Stewart’s Apprentice, parlay that into a Real Housewives gig, launch a cocktail line and a talk show, and then return to her Housewives roots for a huge payday. As the Atlanta version of the Housewives franchise has taught us, popularity (and salary) is a direct correlation to how confrontational you are to other women. It can also launch an actual acting career.
Put together, it all means that Lisa Kudrow and her foreshadowing The Comeback have earned the right to make a comeback of their own with a second season on HBO; eight new episodes featuring an older, not-so-much wiser Valerie kick off on Sunday (November 9). Here’s hoping she reclaims that 15 minutes of fame.