Call it TV’s comeback of the decade — because 10 years is nearly how long HBO’s rule-breaking series The Comeback has taken to return to the network for its much-discussed second season.
In the summer of 2005, former Friends star Lisa Kudrow, her producing partner Dan Bucatinsky and Sex and the City’s Michael Patrick King debuted the 13-episode, dual-camera series, which starred Kudrow as fading actress Valerie Cherish, who allows a reality TV crew to capture her humbling return to the small screen in a hormonal teen sitcom.
Critical acclaim — and three Emmy nominations — followed. So did cancellation.
Though the television veterans recognized a changing television landscape, limited series were a premium-cable novelty at the time and reality TV was in its infancy. Viewers simply did not know what to think of Valerie Cherish and her world.
“We were going over a script or working on something and Michael just stopped everything and looked at me and said, ‘We might be too far ahead of the curve,’” Kudrow recalls. “I went, ‘Whaaaaat?’ And he said, ‘It’s good to be a little ahead of the curve, but not too far ahead … and what if we’re, like, too far ahead?’ I said, ‘Oh, nonsense!’ and we got back to work. But I’ll never forget that because maybe he was right — and the past nine years we’ve had a lot of time to think about what happened.”
“I got really nervous that the rhythm and energy was like nothing I had ever seen before,” King explains. “There had never been a show where the main character is never offscreen. It was a very complicated new palette, and because Lisa is so brilliant at feeling something and letting you feel it and then covering it up with the ‘Valerie veneer,’ it was asking the audience to figure it out themselves. We did not tell people how to think. There is no laugh track or music until the end credits. You are the emotional editor when you are watching it.
“And the other thing that made me nervous was that reality TV didn’t really exist yet and no one had seen a woman put herself in front of the camera and be happy to grind herself up for fame,” King continues. “When I did Sex and the City, the thought that single women were treated like lepers was already in people’s minds. I always felt we were the first people to say it — but we just gave voice to that thought. With The Comeback, we were ahead of the thought process. People got a little confused because they never saw things like The Real Housewives, so they didn’t know what Lisa was doing — ‘Is she Lisa or is she Valerie?’ But Lisa said to me, ‘Michael, this is exactly what we set out to do.’”
So where will Season 2 pick up, now that Ms. Cherish has had nine long, reality-saturated years to thicken her skin? Kudrow says the very first episode opens with a montage of clips that reveal her path to her current adventure, creating a pilot presentation for Bravo’s own Andy Cohen and a group of USC students — including her husband Mark’s nephew — with a wizened eye toward the suddenly super-famous Housewives she sees ruling the television landscape. That is, until she gets wind of an even bigger opportunity. One that reunites her with her former Room and Bored producer Paulie G (Lance Barber).
“To me, that was unfinished business: What was his problem with her?” says Kudrow of Valerie’s agonizing interactions with her openly hostile boss. “I mean, we get the reality cameras were annoying, but there was something that felt deeper and more personal, that we never really addressed, which just made me feel like that was not fair to the human being that was underneath Paulie G. So we explore that. A lot.”
Turns out Paulie is fresh out of a second stint in rehab and further exorcising his demons via an autobiographical dramedy he’s sold to HBO called Seeing Red, which details his travails dealing with a neurotic, redheaded actress while running a sitcom.
“There’s this version of her written in a scripted show and Valerie’s like, ‘Well, that’s not right!’ — until there’s an opportunity to get the role,” Kudrow explains. “Then the actor in her is like, ‘It’s a good role … OK, it’s not me.’ But it was you. ‘It’s not me. It’s a character.’ And she gets confused throughout the [season] about, ‘I would never do that. Oh, right. It’s not me,’ and all the things that come with that.”
“We are trying to reflect the current television landscape, so it’s a complicated mix of comedy and sex and tragedy and drugs,” King says. “But mostly we are trying to put Valerie in a situation that will be both impossible for her because we find that hilarious and because impossible terrain is what makes you grow as a person. Our main goal is to have Valerie evolve. It might not be what someone thinks is a big evolution, but Valerie becoming self-aware — How much of you is for sale? What is more important to you, your career or your marriage? Where does your heart take over your ego? — these are things that I wanted to explore as a person being in television for so long.”
Season 2 also features Valerie’s serenely awkward efforts in self-promotion, social-media style. “What’s fascinating to me is now everybody is in their own microcosm of showbiz because they are all creating a character called them on Facebook and Twitter,” adds King. “‘This is what I want you to see about my week.’ That is all a part of Valerie, which is ‘Do you approve of me? Am I selling you the version of me that I want you to see?’ That is why Valerie is still valid in 2014 — because everybody is a little bit Valerie.”
And Valerie is The Comeback, though nearly everyone from the original core cast makes an appearance in Season 2 (see sidebar). “I’m in every scene,” Kudrow smiles ruefully. “I was asking Michael — can we now, maybe the crew is shooting Jane doing something. Maybe now there is an interview with someone else! And he just went ‘No.’”
“It remains to be seen if we really went too far again,” says King, “but we went for it. If we were really coming back, we want to give people a show. We wanted to give them a bigger show. A darker, deeper show. The idea would be that people would feel passionate about it the way they did the first time. But this time hopefully we are not too far ahead of the curve. On second thought, I hope we are! But maybe just a little bit — not too far.”
New episodes of The Comeback premiere Sunday nights at 10/9CT on HBO beginning Nov. 9
Who Else Is Making A Comeback?
Juna (Malin Ackerman): “We run into her, and it’s a wonderful moment, running into her, even though they do keep in touch,” says Kudrow. “Juna is a big movie star now and she’s always working and not always in the country, but when she’s around, they see each other.”
Chris (Kellan Lutz): “She runs into Chris at a Juna party and he’s a big movie star, too.” says Kudrow. “And Kellan literally grew inches from nine years ago! Cause he was 20 when we did it. He grew! I forgot — oh boys still grow!”
Jane (Laura Silverman): “We got Jane back in the second episode,” says Kudrow of the put-upon reality honcho. “She had won an Oscar for a documentary on lesbians in concentration camps, but now she’s dropped out — ‘I won an Oscar and that didn’t help me get the next one done and I’m done. I’m out!’ And Valerie’s trying to talk her into coming on board for this.”
Mickey (Robert Michael Morris): Valerie’s longtime hair and wardrobe guy has embraced his homosexuality and is even more certain that he is indispensable to her life and career. Much to the consternation of …
Billy (Dan Bucatinsky): Former Scandal star Bucatinsky does double time on the series, serving as executive producer and playing the role of Val’s publicist Billy who battles Mickey about how best to make Val a star.
Gigi and Tom Peterman (Bayne Gibby and Robert Bagnell): “For certain people, it’s like cameos,” Kudrow says. “Val runs into them, like you do in life. She runs into Gigi — and she also goes to see Tom Peterman and we get a little interesting backstory.”
Jimmy Burrows (James Burrows): Yes, the veteran TV producer (Cheers, Mike and Molly) also returns as a brass tacks version of himself. “The guy who said, this isn’t your show— this is the car that takes you to your show. That’s your show. And you’re not It anymore,” cracks Kudrow. “That brutal guy.”
Mark Berman (Damian Young): Yes, Valerie’s is still married to her Love Ball and the couple is still living in their same Bel Air home. “Isn’t that lovely?” Kudrow beams. “I mean, of course they could have moved in nine years and it would have been fine but there is something really great about having that house back. I don’t why that is so thrilling to me, but it is.”