Even in its funniest moments, The Comeback has never been an easy show to watch. (And no, that’s not just a reference to the flood of fecal matter unleashed midway through tonight’s Season 2 finale.)
Over the last eight weeks, Lisa Kudrow and Michael Patrick King’s Portrait of a Sitcom Actress on the Verge of an Unlikely Career Resurgence has shown us the ugly truth of protagonist Valerie Cherish’s quest for fame, success and a little shred of recognition — and the way her unflinching aura of positivity for her omnipresent reality-show camera crew has exacted an awful price on her personal life.
It’s fitting, then, that Season 2’s capper finds Valerie breaking free (however unconsciously) of Jane’s documentarian eye and — after huge guffaws and many hard-earned tears — putting an exclamation point on the episode title, “Valerie Gets What She Really Wants.”
I’ll pause here to say I’m not sure I’ve ever watched an hour of television where one actress has managed to reveal so many different layers of her character — vanity, pride, insecurity, heartbreak, fear, love (both romantic and platonic), pettiness, obliviousness, relief, jubilation (and a few others I’m sure I’m missing) — as Lisa Kudrow does here. (Yes, that’s my way of saying “give her the Emmy — no matter what Julia Louis-Dreyfus cooks up next spring!)
Anyhow, in a nutshell, here’s what happens:
* We open with Valerie attending a night-before-Emmys party at the home of her former Room & Bored cohort (and now major movie star) Juna (Malin Akerman), who expresses her hurt over Val participating in Paulie G’s thinly veiled account of their sitcom experience — mostly because it portrays Juna as “just a body” and Val as “just an ego.” It all ends in a sweet embrace, though, when Juna realizes Valerie’s marriage to Marky-Mark is on the rocks. The real awkwardness, however, occurs when Val’s other successful former costar Chris (Kellan Lutz) arrives on the scene and relentlessly attempts to get Val to let him consummate his first big Hollywood crush. “Movie star with a mommy complex — next!” Valerie jokes to Jane’s lens, after she’s finally let down the bolder-faced (and far mor aroused) name more gently than he deserves. We know it’s because she truly loves her estranged husband, but hey, she’s up for a Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series trophy the next day — and that requires sleep, too.
* In a beautiful callback to the show’s pilot episode, we see Valerie in her kitchen, practicing a 30-second acceptance speech while repeatedly raiding the fridge. Is “I don’t wanna say that” the new “I don’t wanna see that”? Only time will tell.
* Val’s Emmy prep goes awry when Mickey’s new cancer drug causes another brutal nosebleed, with our nominee sweetly tasking her limo driver with getting him back home with a dinner from his favorite deli. Just as celeb stylist Brad Goreski arrives with Valerie’s Emmy gown, however, her sewage pipes burst, and he lands face down in her driveway, covered with fecal matter. This leads to an almost unwatchable — but truly magnificent — scene where Val introduces herself to her neighbor of more than two years, in an attempt to let her use his shower “and psychologically, have it rinsed off.” Hollywood being Hollywood, the outraged gentlemen finally caves, but Val’s conversational aside — “I guess after months and months of pressure [from her Seeing Red crew shooting in her home], it all just finally blew” serves as not only as an explanation of her septic issues, but also for what’s been plaguing her marriage.
* On the red carpet, Valerie — who, in my eyes, has always craved respect even more than success/money/fame — spies legendary director James Burrows, the man who famously directed the Room & Bored pilot and before you know it, she’s revealing the darkest secrets about her personal life, clearly wondering if he’d lost any key relationships on his own path. “This is one night. A great night, but only one night,” the sitcom sage tells her. “If you do win, hold onto that Emmy — and everything else.” For once, Valerie seems to be listening — even though her smile’s as frozen as ever.
* Indeed, those words must stick, because as the ceremony begins, Val gets a text from Mark that Mickey has collapsed at home — and has been rushed to Cedars-Sinai. Here the episode breaks from its “found footage” structure and takes on a more cinematic sweep: Valerie in her gown on the abandoned and rainy red carpet, making the decision that her collaborator of 25 years — a hairstylist who’s stayed in her corner even as her prospects dimmed to student films and infomercials — is more important than any trophy. When she arrives in his room and discovers he’s going to be OK — “You didn’t have to come down here,” he says. “Yes. I did,” she replies, for once, dropping their canned-ham banter and letting on that he’s more than just Best Supporting Player in Her One-Woman Show — it’s beautifully cathartic, a “release the floodgates” moment for true Comeback junkies. If that’s not enough, Mark enters the room seconds later, and realizes his wife, despite all she’s sacrificed for career, has not sacrificed her soul. As Valerie sits, flanked by her two best guys, she watches the Emmy telecast and (deservedly) takes top honors.
* Will her career keep flourishing? Will her marriage survive? And might Jane win some statuette of her own for her behind-the-scenes look at Val’s latest rollercoaster ride? We’ll only know if HBO gifts us with a Season 3 (whether it be in 2015 or even 2025). I’m hoping that, ratings be damned, it happens, but if not, it’s good to see Red come out on top — even for one night.
To quote Mr. Burrows on the red carpet (and he could’ve been talking to Ms. Cherish, Ms. Kudrow, HBO or the show’s entire creative team): “You really put yourself out there. Good for you.”
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