The Comeback was, without question, one of the year's best and funniest comedies. And I cried during its season finale.
That, along with a tour de force performance from Lisa Kudrow that scrapes in under the gun as one of 2014's best, is exactly why The Comeback is so spectacular. If laughter is the best medicine, The Comeback made you feel enough pain to need a dose—and then it delivered in spades. In doing so, the second season, airing nine years after its first, lived up to the series' nearly decade-long legend of perfection. And then some.
Legendary is certainly one way to describe HBO's charming comedy, a half-hour series shot documentary style about a failing actress named Valerie Cherish and her desperate attempts to revitalize her career. Canceled by HBO after one season but beloved long after by its passionate cult fans, it was also described as ahead of its time—for the brilliance with which it captured and skewered the problematic rise of reality TV—and as hard to watch, for the endless assault on Valerie's dignity we're forced to bear witness to.
But there's an underlying humanity and hilarity that Kudrow captures in Valerie's desperation that takes the edge off the cringing. And in the season finale, I cringed so hard that tears finally came out.
After a season chronicling Valerie's rise to respectability in Hollywood, those tears came from the storylines we unknowingly became more invested in: how that rise affected her personal life, specifically her relationships with hairdresser Mickey and husband Marc. The finale saw (SPOILERS AHEAD) Valerie actually win an Emmy Award, but it was the failing health of her best friend and the dissolution—and ultimate reparation of—her marriage that we ultimately cared the most about.
The brilliance of The Comeback is the full range of ways it mines such tragicomedy, how it can pull off slapstick gags and laughs out of the nuance of human behavior—and, more importantly, how it perfectly balances both extremes to have you cringing, chuckling, and breathing out a sigh of cathartic relief when Valerie somehow makes it through all of it grasping on to that very last shred of dignity she somehow manages to never let go of.
The finale was chock full of both these things. There was the obvious sight gags of Valerie not realizing who everyone was clapping for, when the party was clapping for her. There was poop humor—literally—when Valerie's house becomes flooded with fecal matter after a pipe bursts. And when two bros start quoting the show to her, the unfortunate line, "Say 'old woman's pussy!'" delivers the laughs.
The more human moments and human comedy are what elevates The Comeback, though. So when Valerie is, say, rushing to legendary director James Burrows on the Emmy red carpet and confesses her marital problem to him in the world's most awkward case of diarrhea of the mouth, it's as hilarious as it is sad.
And then there's the episode's best moment, the brilliant callback to Valerie's heartbreaking and adorable late-night rehearsing of "I don't want to see that," lit only by the interior light of the refrigerator as she keeps going back for more food. Getting a heartbreaking laugh isn't easy, but the show got another one in the finale when Valerie was doing the same late-night snacking while rehearsing her Emmy acceptance speech.
Special praise goes to Kudrow for the way she broadened the scope of Valerie Cherish in Season 2.
She's not just a famewhore cluelessly flitting through Hollywood. Her shamelessness shades more on the side of ambition, and it's because you can see the recognition in Valerie's eyes and, at times, the sadness when the consequences of those ambitions start piling up: Mickey's illness, the damage to her marriage, the disapproval from members of the industry who think she degraded herself by being a part of Seeing Red that went along with the accolades she received for her performance.
The result is the most unusual of TV shows. Comedies should be fun to watch. The Comeback was often hard to watch, even painful. And that's what makes it so special, so smart, so good.
Reviving a series is risky business. It's typically a catastrophic one, too. As passionately as fans petition and cry for a beloved series to return, they're the least forgiving of creative issues that, really, should be expected when a TV show is resurrected out of the blue years after the characters and storyline was last put to bed. You know all those silly kids movies where historical figures come back to life after centuries and bumble around like fools because they don't know how to act in today's world? That's typically the case with these revived TV series, too.
Remember how much fans wanted Arrested Development to return, and how vicious they were when the show was a modicum of its former self during its Netflix rebirth? And while Carrie and her girls pulled off a respectable feature-length film reunion, despite shaky legs at times, not even the most steadfast Cosmo drinkers and Magnolia cupcake bingers were able to stomach the film's near-legacy-ruining sequel. Even this past week, the trailer for a movie version of Entourage that apparently some community of fans seemed to have asked for was met with rampant ridicule on social media.
When you think about all of that, the success of this Comeback run is all the more impressive.
Of course, this is The Comeback, and so "success" is a relative word. While Valerie Cherish certainly got a version of a happy ending, it was most likely not the one she envisioned, or even the one that I as an audience member might have wanted for her. That's what made it so perfect.
There's nothing more that she, or we, would've wanted more than to see her on stage accepting an Emmy Award and finally having her moment of unmarred glory. Alas, she wins her trophy, but her walk to the podium is replaced by a rain-soaked Uber ride to a hospital where she watches her name announced on a 9-inch TV screen.
The Comeback, which is so often so squirm-inducing and uncomfortable, would be unwatchable if you couldn't sense baby steps of growth in Valerie as she weathers her series of embarrassments. That she so clearly feels no regret for missing her acceptance speech and seems to be genuinely touched by sharing the moment with Mickey and Marc in a hospital room was a more satisfying victory for us to witness as an audience than any award-show acceptance speech could've ever been.
We might have thought The Comeback was about a desperate actress's shameless struggle for fame. But it turns out it was really about a woman's struggle to realize what actually makes her happy.
In a bit of a life imitating art situation, The Comeback also gets a version of a happy ending, but probably not the one most of us expected either.
To begin with, the huge risk paid off. Season 2 of the show was excellent, as perfect of a little capsule of a TV season as the original run was nine years ago. Not only that, its return was met with unbridled enthusiasm from fans who held watch parties and counted down to each new episode and from critics who embraced the new season with rave reviews—not to mention copious think pieces.
Yet, much like the fate that fell the first season, ratings just plain weren't good. That rabidly excited community, apparently, was a small one. A loud one, but a small one. And the series was implausibly shut out by both the Golden Globe and SAG Awards. That's fine—excellent TV shows are snubbed all the time by these awards organizations. But the fact that Lisa Kudrow wasn't nominated, despite giving what is without a doubt the television performance of the year, is absolutely inexcusable.
She does what Louis C.K. does—capturing the torture of what it's like to merely be a human with desires along with the hilarity of being a person with personality quirks—and does it even better. She manages to be a victim and a hero at the same time. Valerie is both pathetic and brave, and, especially in the finale, Kudrow brought an astonishing amount of dramatic heft to what, in less talented hands, could have been an overlong Saturday Night Live spoof of the Real Housewives.
Give Lisa Kudrow all the awards.
It's been nine years that fans of The Comeback have been clamoring for HBO to "give her another take." That's a lot of pressure and buildup to live up to. Frankly, I don't think even Michael Patrick King, Lisa Kudrow, and the show's biggest fans expected it to be this good. But it was. It was nearly perfect.
So perfect that we wonder if we should risk ruining it by asking for yet another take. But we want it. We need it. Please, HBO, give her another take.