By Alexis Eastman
I enjoy the binge watch for a lot of reasons, I suppose I had a lightly oppressed childhood so any sensation of indulgent control is one that I like. But also I like it because my innate TV wisdom (which I owe to a wily combination of luck and being raised by said television) tells me that when you watch a show all at once it's like staying very still in the forest for a long time- eventually the deer will come up to you). The Comeback, Season One (June- Sept. 2005) fucking came right up to me and looked me dead in the eyes.
The Comeback features Lisa Kudrow as Valerie Cherish, an actress who had a hit show almost a decade ago and is looking to reupholster the has-been persona which has long defined her small place in pop culture. The plan is carefully gestated by The Network and Cherish herself, and involves a bit part on a mediocre sitcom and an accompanying reality show-
Right off the bat I'm losing track of reality because I'm watching a show that feels like a reality show, film the behind the scenes of people shooting a reality show and sitcom and then talk about how annoyed they are about reality shows and sitcoms. It's unsettling, and it turns out, all this time off the set of Friends has seen Kudrow honing her ability to make you want to peel your face off. Making FearFactor look reserved, Cherish is awkwardly stopping and starting and breaking the fourth wall and asking for retakes of real life and laughing at her own jokes while her largely off camera (but very present) producer, Jane, repeats herself for the thousandth time.
I hate it, but I keep watching through my fingers because I'm committed and a masochist and also because there are reasons to watch. It's not entirely out of good will that I click to episode 2, or episode three, or then drag 4 and 5 onto a USB key and descend into the bathtub with my floating cheerio bowl.
The tone feels something akin to bootcamp. The first half of the season is a battering ram of awkward- over and over until you are vulnerable enough to see past social mis-steps that are damn near chargeable offences. You actually see so far past it, you cut straight to the girl with low self-esteem who is vastly overcompensating for a childhood with scoliosis and an adulthood spent longing for another 15 minutes of fame. It’s a potent cocktail of sad, sweet and terrible that leaves you with that raw feeling most closely akin to being in grade 7 and watching your friends embarrass themselves at the talent show.
I’m sitting low in the tub, just my nose and eyes above the tepid water- skeptical. I'm getting prune-y but Kudrow/Cherish is hard to stop watching even though by the the middle of the season, she's starting to feel like the villain. Sure, you've got the sardonic, apathetic 30- something writers who are Cherish's villains but they just kind of remind me of my friends. I'm thinking about how I loathe her but am hopeful it's purposeful as it all coalesces for me in the eighth episode “Valerie Relaxes in Palm Springs” - the turning point in the thirteen episode arc.
It’s a typical Cherish experience; she’s lying through her teeth about liking the decor to seem young while horrified at how early the younger guests wake up to claim their chairs, she’s abruptly leaving the resort after her acquaintance on the pool deck goes topless wihle offering to Cherish's demurely appalled face “Who cares what people think, you gotta love yourself, warts and all.”
On her way out she's recognized by a couple fans of her first show, who flag her down to gush. She's really sweet to these guys. She is so grateful for the acknowledgment. I'm still sunken into the tub but I'm feeling my heart grow a couple sizes bigger. She asks the couple to sign release papers so they can be in the show and their enthusiasm falls as one of the fans isn't out to his family. Cherish wants the release, she wants her fans on screen, she turns to him “You know you can't always worry about what other people think. You have to be who you are. Warts and all.” He signs, as you see her putting it all together – she has fans! she got a release! she gave great advice! great advice she can't fucking follow!
Kudrow is smiling but there is all this fear in her eyes and then I'm sitting up a little higher in the water and it occurs to me; the fear has been there the whole time- I just haven’t had room to accept it. After dinner and what is obviously many cocktails, Valerie collapses on a pool chair and pulls out her phone to drunk dial her bully from the set. I sink back low into the water again expecting the Michael Bay action scene equivalent of cringe comedy. The message starts with “Fatty had a party and no one came” and I'm about to retract my vulnerability when she pauses:
“...no, no, the problem was everyone came, but I wasn't invited and that hurts my feelings. And you need to know that. ‘Cause I'm not gonna keep it inside and get cancer.”
She hangs up. She laughs. She passes out on the pool deck. I'm sitting up and shivering in the tub leaning as close as I can to the screen as it cuts to the final scene – Cherish and Marky Mark driving home. The cameras tight in on them, expectantly, hoping for some hangover comedy. Instead of the inauthentic explanation we've come to expect, she puts on music the reality show doesn’t have the rights to and lives her life for the whole car ride home knowing that time is only hers.
I'm crying. I'd finally been inoculated with enough cringe-worthy vibes that I'm seeing all the way through it. Early episodes see Cherish much more as a joke, clearly not taken seriously by the crew shooting her, but as Jane et. al soften to Cherish, I do too. It happens slowly, and
I laud Kudrow and her co-creator Michael Patrick King in taking their sweet time to give this obnoxious walking cliche a chance to be human, giving her the chance to be human- something few TV villains ever get to do (save, maybe, for Mad Men's Pete Campbell).
The rest of the season has me cheering and when it ended another 200 minutes or so later, I laid in the quiet post-coital moment while all of these people in my life started to rise to the top of my mind- their bodies, her face. Aren't we all a bit too much like Cherish- desperately trying to manufacture and control every waking moment.
A few days later I'm listening to people talk at a party that feels very out of my league. Lawyers, cocktails and beautiful glassware and of course in a few drinks someone is talking about fucking Game of Thrones. I'm eavesdropping and chugging red and the consensus seems to be that the value of GoT is the boobs and that it doesn't ask too much of you. I'm rolling my eyes and self-congratulating my great taste when I return to Valerie Cherish. She's walked out of the TV and into my life and is replacing everyone I can't stand, with herself. Sure we're laughing at her and there's some plot, drama, boobs and boys but she's unpacking the human phenomena of pretending everything is magical to protect our fragile vulnerability. I think to myself that this young lawyer must love Game of Thrones for the dragons, but that isn't a very cool answer, and I consider interrupting them to tell him to be more honest, warts and all.