There’s no more hollow an artistic victory than to be considered ahead of one’s time. It’s poetic and it dulls the pain of failure a little, but it’s the Siberian gale of cold comfort. Yet as cable networks buy up “brilliant but canceled” programs, shows that were misunderstood in their time are getting a second bite of the apple. The most conspicuous comeback of late belongs to the Sundance Channel and The Comeback, the most incisive, hilarious, and delightfully savage takedown of reality television ever made. It’s a shame it appeared way before audiences were ready for it.
The show, which originally ran on HBO in 2005, starred Lisa Kudrow as Valerie Cherish, a washed-up comedian equally in need of a new hit and a massive injection of self-awareness. She’s most famous for I’m It!—a rickety old sitcom about a law firm that was canceled just three episodes shy of syndication. In an example of her obliviousness, Valerie thinks the show was axed because of an insensitive joke about Rodney King, as opposed to, say, the fact that a chimpanzee had started working as a lawyer at the show’s firm. Now she’s angling for a return to the spotlight as the star of a transparently insipid sitcom called Room and Bored, though it comes with a catch. She must also star in a behind-the-scenes reality show that will document her journey back.
When it debuted, the meta-ness of The Comeback was part of the problem. As a satire about the vapidity of reality television, it was acute but too insidery. Each episode is presented as raw footage from the reality show, freighting every scene with production jargon and Hollywood winks (sitcom-directing superstar James Burrows even makes a four-episode cameo). It was also too early of a tackle. The Comeback tore down the tropes and trickery of a television genre still in the midst of its heyday. Moreover, it was the first project Michael Patrick King took on following his success as executive producer of Sex and the City. Fans who came looking for another dose of life-begins-at-40 female empowerment instead got a bleak portrait of a woman past her prime clawing to stay relevant. Adding challenge to contretemps, The Comeback was among the first American sitcoms to try the dry, mockumentary format, which can skew too dark tonally. The U.S. version of The Office debuted its brief, uneven first season around the same time to reviews not much better than the jeers The Comeback received.
I was initially flummoxed by The Comeback myself. Valerie was easy to dislike, and even when the disgust curdled into pity, that still didn’t feel like a compelling reason to keep watching. The writers knew the audience would find Valerie off-putting, so they often relied on cringe humor that spared her no indignity. (Even now, I think having a dog poop in her feathered Farrah-do was a bit much.) But by the middle of the season, Valerie developed sympathetic layers. She initially seems like a pushover, willing to go along with any humiliation that will get her back onto a red carpet. But Valerie isn’t pathetic, she’s just game for anything—in comedy as much as in life. By season’s end, she’s standing up for herself, gaining the audience’s respect, and even their adoration. Kudrow turned in an astonishing, egoless (and later, Emmy-nominated) performance, lending some much-needed humanity to a character who could be as hubristic as she is craven.
In other words, Valerie is a lot like the folks on those train-wreck reality shows The Comeback is satirizing. After six seasons of The Hills, the kudzu-like Real Housewives franchise, and VH1’s pitiful spate of “Celebreality” series, Valerie Cherish is finally ready to take her place among the D-list celebrities you love to hate. The Comeback was ahead of its time when it premiered, but now, just barely trailing the reality-television debut of a certain former vice-presidential candidate, it’s downright au courant.