If you didn’t keep up with The Comeback’s unlikely second season, you missed some of the most compelling television of the year. If The Comeback had remained a one season wonder it would have been enough: the first season was a sharp satire of show business with a finely drawn character at the center. Valerie Cherish, thanks to Lisa Kudrow’s remarkable performance, exerted a gravitational pull that kept the fictional world around her in neat, precise orbit.
In the show’s second season, things go a bit off-kilter. Kudrow’s performance has only become more dynamic, approaching the event horizon of genuine tragedy. The Comeback’s new run finds it a blacker comedy than the first and at times this season it seems Valerie’s gravity will become too great. She threatens to implode into a black hole and swallow everything around her.
If that cosmic analogy seems overblown, it isn’t. The season finale made it clear that Kudrow and Michael Patrick King want the audience to understand that Valerie is fighting for nothing less than her soul, her humanity. The episode is filled with a series of plagues that act as omens: Mickey’s sickness reaches its nadir, it pours on the day of the Emmys, a pipe bursts in Val’s home unleashing a torrent of fecal matter across her driveway. This is not subtle storytelling, nor is it meant to be. Michael Patrick King and Lisa Kudrow purposely imbue the episode with quasi-religious undertones to make clear the dire stakes. If the first season showed how willing we are to humiliate ourselves in the name of fame, this season upped the ante, and turned that into a deeply philosophical examination of the ways we both self-sabotage and self-preserve, and how those are sometimes, paradoxically, the same thing.
Valerie Cherish is a character that Lisa Kudrow plays, but “Valerie Cherish” is also a character that Valerie Cherish plays. And playing that character is both Val’s armor and her Achilles’ heel. That character is what gave Val the necessary remove from her own shortcomings and missteps to essentially ignore them and plow ahead in her career. And this is one of the most admirable things about the character of Valerie Cherish. In a recent interview with E!, Kudrow insisted that “[Val’s] not a victim.” That’s an accomplishment, because within the fictional universe of The Comeback, everyone and everything dumps on her and tries to make her one. But she won’t have it. “Victim” isn’t part of the character, and so Val never plays it.
Sometimes her inability to see her tepid career for what it really is gets played as naiveté, and sometimes as narcissistic self-obsession. But other times, as in the penultimate episode of the season, it reveals itself as startlingly sincere self-possession. When Val and Mark are fighting in the parking lot of a restaurant, he claims to have been there for her when no one else was and she bites back with “No one? Really? Not no one, because I believed in me. I’m not no one. That’s not nice. Maybe you don’t think I’m someone, but I have a birth certificate that says I am.” This isn’t a motivational poster “I can do it”-ism. This is a woman fighting every moment to make herself in the image she chooses. That’s inspirational. That’s admirable.
But Valerie doesn’t always choose right, and the Val she creates sometimes becomes nasty and causes her to lose sight of the things she should make her priorities. Wearing the “wire” to her dinner with Mark is Valerie trying to do what’s best for “Valerie,” but not Val and Mark. And by the season finale, we approach the inevitable: the point at which “Valerie” and Valerie can no longer coexist. Indeed, the whole second season goes to great lengths to examine the possible reasons why this coexistence cannot be, and posits the tension between the expectations society places on women vs. the roles it will allow them to play as one possible culprit. Its scathing indictment of this broken sexist system is perhaps its main thesis.
In true fairytale fashion, Valerie—without the quotation marks—seems to win out. Upon hearing that Mickey fell gravely ill and is in the hospital, Val leaves the Emmys to make the arduous trek to his bedside. There, she finds Mickey (who did NOT die! It’s a real Tiny Tim moment) and Mark waiting for her, and the three of them watch together from a crappy hospital TV as she wins the Emmy.
It all seems like a bit of a dream, and that feeling is enhanced by the move from the show’s typical mockumentary, cinema verité style to a more traditional cinematic aesthetic, where cameras have tripods and shots are composed as thoughtful tableaux. Despite the blissful particulars of the ending, the tonal shift left me with an uneasy feeling. It seemed too good to be true, and I wonder if King and Kudrow didn’t intend that. I couldn’t be certain whether I was supposed to take the ending as literal, or whether it represented some wild fantasy. But that ambiguity only made me love it more. Maybe this fairytale ending is that impossible space where “Valerie” and Valerie can coexist harmoniously, that space that we all pine for where our ambitions align perfectly with our realities, where we get what we want and want what we have.
One thing is certain: The Comeback’s second season is even better than its first. It’s a masterclass. Poignant, funny, uncomfortable, unflinching. Playing Valerie Cherish got Val an Emmy. Maybe—hopefully—the series will have one more crowning meta moment and Kudrow will take an Emmy for the same. But, if this season is anything to go by, something tells me she won’t be sweating it either way. The real reward for her, for King, and for the audience is that we got a second spin with this great series. – Michael Ward