Monday, March 4, 2013

The Comeback - "Valerie Shines Under Stress"

Season 1, Episode 12
Original Airdate: August 28. 2005
Writer: Heather Morgan
Director: David Steinberg
Executive Producers: Michael Patrick King, Lisa Kudrow, Dan Bucatinsky, John P. Melfi
Cast: Lisa Kudrow, Robert Michael Morris, Lance Barber

It had been a few years since I had seen “The Comeback” when I decided to revisit it for this article, and after only a few seconds I found myself dropped back into the world of all things Valerie Cherish. The characters all seemed so familiar and so beloved, and the world that co-creators Michael Patrick King and Lisa Kudrow created was completely three-dimensional and real. This is truly one of the greatest of all television shows.

The premise involves a show within a show within a show, and yet still manages to seem simple and fresh (even today). Valerie Cherish (Kudrow) is a C-list actress who concurrently lands a dowdy supporting role on an unfunny sitcom called “Room and Bored” and a reality show that aims to follow Cherish on her “comeback” to television. The show presents raw, unedited footage of Cherish, her family, her friends, the reality crew and those working on the sitcom. It came out around the same time as the American version of “The Office” and employed that same documentary style that became so prevalent over the past eight years, but because “The Comeback” embraced the meta aspects of the style and used the crew as characters (something “The Office” is just now beginning to do, here in its final season), it created another level of humor to its storytelling.

The world that King and Kudrow created was quite ingenious on many levels. While it poked fun at the three-camera sitcom Valerie worked on (a three-camera sitcom is where the audience watches the show taped live and laughs at all the gags), it employed its own skewed version by having “normal people” watching the reality show taping and reacting to all of Valerie’s gags and pratfalls. And that cast of characters! Dickens would be proud. I’m continually fascinated by the depth that King and Kudrow brought to (at first glance) shallow caricatures. The star of “Room and Bored,” Juna (Malik Akerman), is a none-too-bright blonde actress…and yet the writers continually make a point of humanizing her. She really does consider Valerie (who befriended her in order to seem more hip) to be one of her best friends.

And then there’s Valerie.

On one level, the audience never sees who Valerie Cherish really is (until the finale) because she always has a mask up for the cameras. On another level, the cracks in her “onscreen” persona humanize her and her inability to let any of the many (many!) embarrassments she suffers through bring her down make us cheer for her. We love her, but we also love to see her suffer.

“Valerie Shines Under Stress” presents us with a world where all of Valerie’s comforts and safety nets are taken away from her. With “The Comeback” reality show premiering soon, its in her contract that she must be featured heavily in an episode of “Room and Bored,” something her arch-nemesis (and co-head writer of the sitcom) Paulie G (Lance Barber) is none-too-happy with. The writers devise a diet-pill induced dream for Valerie’s character – her character dressed as a giant cupcake must perform a big pratfall. During all this, Juna begins getting death threats and security is bumped up on set, and after Valerie beeps while walking through a metal detector she reveals that she has scoliosis and, as a result, has a large metal rod in her back.

All during this, writer Heather Morgan begins setting up the dominoes that she will knock down during the episode’s climax. “Room and Bored’s” other head writer, Tom (Robert Bagnell) has an “ulcer situation” and spends the week at home. The sitcom’s director for the week is a non-presence. Valerie insists that her husband doesn’t come to the taping. She goes to get advice from a director she trusts (James Burrows, one of the great comedic television directors of all time playing himself), who tells her that falling backward will be funnier, even though we know that will really hurt her because of the rod in her back. On taping day, the audience leaves early after a technical malfunction…the last safety net for Valerie.

All she has left is Paulie G’s emotionless stare.

In an incredibly uncomfortable sequence (purposely), Valerie falls in the cupcake suit over and over…finally falling backward, fully knowing she will be in incredible pain afterwards. Who would have ever thought a giant cupcake suit would be such a dramatic prop? After all is said and done, Paulie G insults Valerie one too many time, and Valerie punches him in the gut. Causing him to vomit. Which causes her to vomit. And, in that moment, all the tension that has been building for the entire episode comes to a beautiful, hilarious climax. Because, seriously, who doesn’t love (in the words of Jay Leno) “the rare double vomit”?

What really impressed me was how well Morgan was able to hide the script’s machinations. Every piece of the puzzle was enjoyable enough on its own that it did not seem like set-up, which is the hallmark of great writing.

The series was, in many ways, lightning in a bottle. On every level, from the writing to the cast to the direction, it worked. And that is some kind of special. Of course, “The Comeback” was never planned as a one-season wonder. Though the finale works perfectly as a series finale, when Kudrow came to speak at AFI she spoke at length about what would have happened had the series come back for a second season. Even on the DVD there are extra scenes shot that I can only imagine would have been used if the show came back. Even though I’m heartbroken HBO didn’t give the show a second chance, part of me thinks that it would be nearly impossible to top the first season. Of course, even as I write that, I know that if anyone could do it, it would be Kudrow and King. The character still remains so indelible that I can’t help but wonder where she would be today. What would Valerie Cherish be doing right now? I do wanna see that.

“Valerie Shines Under Stress” is available at HBO Go, YouTube and on DVD.

1 comment:

  1. "This is truly one of the greatest of all television shows." Agreed! Plus, great job in assaying its beauty.