Test Pilot: File #28, The Comeback

Test Pilot #28: The Comeback

Debut date: June 5, 2005

Series’ legacy: A flawed, lukewarmly received mockumentary that was perhaps a bit before its time

For nearly a decade-and-a-half, HBO has been the biggest power player in the television industry. More than any other individual network or entity, HBO has shaped our perceptions of quality and complexity and perhaps most importantly, the cable giant has led the charge in raising culture’s expectations and evaluation of television as a storytelling medium. Though other networks have gained ground on HBO in recent years (most notably FX and AMC), the “not TV” network still remains the gold standard for A-level television.

But we aren’t here to celebrate HBO’s obvious and warranted successes. Instead, this theme hopes to explore five of HBO’s supposed missteps from the last handful of years. HBO programming takes risks, but these five series apparently didn’t take the proper ones or executed those risks improperly. Why did these series fail? What about these series made them incompatible with HBO’s (or its audience’s) expected level of quality? Are they even failures at all? The goal here is both to address these questions and pull forth some of the blemishes on the record that HBO has purposefully tried to whitewash in recent years. HBO might not be TV, but it also isn’t perfect.

In today’s entry, we look at a series that seems like the first flat-out “failure” of the theme, at least in the traditional sense of the term. The Comeback just feels like a HBO production: Lisa Kudrow was (and is, though probably less so these days) a substantial name in the television business. Kudrow co-created this series with Michael Patrick King, the long-time showrunner of Sex and the City, giving the series an additional jolt of “not TV” buzz that HBO sure does love to cultivate.* Throw in a premise that just begs for a cornucopia of guest stars (sup, James Burrows?) and refuse to get caught up in the similarities or ties to Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Comeback fits perfectly among the mid-aught HBO line-up.

*This is the point where I mention that one Michael Schur was a staff writer for this series as well, which obviously means a hell of a lot more in 2011 than it did in 2005. I am curious if Greg Daniels asked him to join The Office primarily because of his experience with the mockumentary format here. Anyway.

Unfortunately for Kudrow, Patrick King and HBO, The Comeback went like many of HBO’s series during the mid-aughts: Out with a whimper. The series debuted to very mixed reviews – the always confounding Alessandra Stanley of the New York Times preferred the “charming” second season of Entourage – and very poor ratings. HBO wasted no time putting a stop to The Comeback, cancelling it just a few weeks after the first season. Today, we (retroactively) explore if the middling reviews and quick hook for The Comeback were valid.

Helping me in that exploration is Anthony Strand. He is a North Dakota native, but now makes a living doing archival and map-related work at the University of Missouri. Anthony’s also a contributor to ToughPigs.com, and used to have a blog that he hasn’t updated in three years.” He often thinks about getting back in that habit, but life keeps getting in the way. You can, and should, follow him on Twitter. Anthony, your thoughts on The Comeback, please:

In Curb Your Enthusiasm’s second season, Larry David and his old Seinfeld star Julia Louis-Dreyfus pitch HBO a sitcom called Hey Evelyn!, where Louis-Dreyfus would have played an aging actress who can’t escape the shadow of the character she played on a smash hit sitcom. A couple of years later, HBO announced The Comeback, and my initial thought was that they liked the idea of Hey Evelyn! so much, they grabbed the nearest 1990s NBC star and made it for real.

Six years later, having finally seen the pilot, I can see that I was mostly wrong about that. The show is about the shadow of Friends only tangentially. In fact, Lisa Kudrow and co-creator Michael Patrick King go out of their way to stress that I’m It is only a cultural landmark in Valerie’s head – it’s been off the air for a dozen years, it only did four seasons (a respectable run, but one matched by the likes of Dear John and Dave’s World). Unlike Kudrow (or Louis-Dreyfus) she probably doesn’t get recognized on the street because no one remembers her.

We also see the difference between Valerie and the actual Kudrow in the possessions she keeps from her I’m It! days – a People’s Choice Award that she treasures “because it’s from the people” (Kudrow won an actual Emmy for Friends, and was nominated six times, so she probably doesn’t dwell on People’s Choice Awards), and a framed photo of her only appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno (I’d imagine that all of the Friends stars found talk shows to be routine after a while). This is some of the pilot’s best material, since it gives us a feel for who Valerie is as a person. Of course, that person is genuinely desperate for attention, which is what makes her the perfect subject for a reality show.

Unfortunately, the reality show aspect is where The Comeback starts to run into trouble. Valerie’s a fascinating character, but I don’t think the format serves her well at all. We’re told at the beginning that this is “raw footage” from the reality show (also called The Comeback) that exists within the show’s world. This means that we see her fears about how she’ll come across (in the pilot, she says “You can’t use that” three times), which we wouldn’t see in the finished show, and it also allows reality show director Jane to be an on-screen presence with whom Valerie can interact.

Despite the “raw footage” conceit, the 32-minute pilot takes place over the course of many weeks. At the beginning, Valerie hasn’t yet auditioned for the pilot of her new sitcom Room & Bored, but by the end the show has been picked up by the network. Like any other reality show, this has been edited with a specific viewpoint in mind, to tell a specific story.

So why claim that it’s raw footage? I suppose because it allows the creators to avoid having to follow the actual rules of reality shows – they can show unflattering moments that would never make it to air, and they can better explore how invasive the process of making a reality show is. In the pilot, though, the balance just feels uneasy. Who edited this compilation?  Why does it tell such a linear story? Maybe I’m over thinking it, but the more I consider the device, the less sense it makes.

I probably wouldn’t have spent so much time considering the logistics of the series if the reality show material had been funnier. Instead, it just hits the obvious points in the most uninspired ways. After Valerie is cast in Room & Bored, Jane asks her to say “Well, I got it!” again and again, because she wants “more excitement.” They could have replaced that scene with a card saying “Ha ha! Reality shows are fake! Did you guys know?” and it would have had exactly the same effect.

Similarly, when Valerie records her “private video diary,” we hear the sound of her husband Mark defecating, as he puts it. This is supposed to show us that the cameras capture everything, even the embarrassing moments. But it plays more like a good old-fashioned poop joke, not really that different from the ones Comeback co-creator Michael Patrick King currently favors on his (somewhat Room & Bored-esque) network sitcom 2 Broke Girls.

Room & Bored itself is the least successful aspect of the pilot. The Comeback wants to be a parody of three things simultaneously – spoiled stars, reality shows, and bad network sitcoms – and the third is one too many. Even more so than the jabs at reality shows, the show’s view of network sitcoms lacks any kind of subtlety. Not only because the show itself favors broad jokes, but also because its idea of a multi-camera sitcom doesn’t resemble anything that would actually make it to air.

For example, when the writers of Room & Bored decide that Valerie is too old to live with three 20-something women, they change her character to a sassy live-in aunt. That character is literally named Aunt Sassy. Good grief. Watching those scenes, all I could think of was Showtime’s more recent Episodes. Like that show, Comeback pats itself on the back for yelling “Stupid sitcoms are stupid!” repeatedly, even while presenting a scenario so ridiculous it moves beyond satire and just becomes silly.

That said, there are some nice moments. One terrific little scene shows Valerie at home practicing the unfunny line “Note to self – after a long day at work, I don’t want to see that!” in dozens of different ways. Kudrow saved a lot of lazy Phoebe jokes with her delivery, and I imagine she spent many evenings working out where to put emphasis on those lines.

If The Comeback was more tightly focused on Valerie’s insecurities (and delusions) as an aging actress, I’d be eager to watch more of it. But it spends so much time telling me things I already know about TV genres it considers inferior to itself, and a half-hour of that is quite enough.*

*As an aside, I thought it was both appropriate and sad that James Burrows played himself as the director of Room & Bored. Burrows made his name as the primary director of classics like Taxi and Cheers, but these days he spends his time directing the pilots for many of CBS’s multi-camera sitcoms, and as the primary director of Mike & Molly. If Room & Bored was a real show, it’s very likely he would have directed it. That’s a much sadder commentary on the state of multi-camera sitcoms than anything else in The Comeback’s pilot.


And now, my thoughts on The Comeback:

Like I mentioned in the introduction above, The Comeback falls somewhere quite different on the failure spectrum than our previous entries in this theme, K Street and Carnivàle. While the former was simply too “inside baseball” and exclusive to succeed and the latter was too odd and most importantly, too expensive, The Comeback had none of those high-class problems – it apparently just wasn’t good enough.

When I looked up The Comeback’s debut date, I initially started thinking about how the series’ mockumentary style might have been before its time. It aired right after the tepidly-received first season of The Office and therefore, one might argue that audiences weren’t quite ready for the format yet. But The Comeback has such obvious ties to not only Curb, but also The Larry Sanders Show and Showtime’s Fat Actress, which crashed and burned just a few months prior to The Comeback’s debut. So although the faux-reality show conceit might have been novel*, the actual subject matter of The Comeback was neither novel or particularly good, which is not a combination any series wants going for it.

*Anthony touched on this a little bit, but one of the things that really annoyed me about The Comeback is how we’re supposed to view this as rough, unedited footage of Valerie’s reality series chronicling her comeback and yet, these first 31 minutes are clearly and heavily edited (just like any television episode would be). I get that the series wanted to go with this “unedited” approach so that it could revel in the uncomfortability of certain moments like when Valerie keeps telling her producer to cut this or that, but I also would prefer not to watch a series that tells me it’s one thing when it’s clearly another. I have to imagine that the people who get up in arms about the “logic” and “reality” of how events play out on The Office really hated this series.

Whereas K Street and Carnivàle failed because they were risky, weird and perhaps too HBO for even HBO’s most fervent tastemaker audience members, The Comeback pilot presents us with an obvious roadmap that suggests little effort being made outside of the lead performance. The Comeback pilot assumes that the audience will embrace the story and laugh at the jokes because of the somewhat different way they are packaged. If I could use one word to describe this pilot, it would be lazy. If I could use a second word, it would be complacent. Perhaps the series got better – I can’t find too many reviews that suggest that this was the case, though EW’s Ken Tucker named it one of the 10 best series of the decade, so there’s that to chew on – but in pilot form, The Comeback just isn’t very good.

Anthony made this comparison before I could but his note about Showtime’s Episodes is a fantastic one. Although I think that series improved as it went along in the first season because it started to focus more on the interpersonal entanglements instead of the Hollywood insider-y industry stuff, Episodes still falls victim to the same thing that plagues The Comeback and countless other popular culture texts that take the audience inside the studios and lots that make up the entertainment industry. The people who make series like The Comeback and Episodes assume that they’re funnier than everyone else and that the best way to show that is to make every character that stands in for an executive or an actor a grade-A idiot who can barely comprehend simple human thoughts or emotions, let alone bring a quality story to life on a weekly basis.

The Comeback is less malicious with its self-reflexivity and parodying of the contemporary mid-aught comedy scene, but it still suggests that most people in Hollywood are idiots. As Anthony mentioned, Room & Bored plays like the worst sitcom not named Work It! Even in an era that was something of a dry spell for the sitcom, Room & Bored’s terrible quality, lame jokes and dejected, disinterested writing staff is too over-the-top to be remotely believable. I’m not entirely committed to an honorable, verisimilitude-y representation of Hollywood in my TV series about Hollywood, but I can’t imagine even the people who worked on bombs like Man Up were this miserable doing so. Are people in Hollywood egomaniacs or miserable dolts?

Perhaps worst of all, The Comeback mistreats its lead character so regularly that only Lisa Kudrow’s rock-solid performance and congenial mannerisms keep Valerie from being too depressing to watch. I understand the desire to play with an actress character who lacks self-awareness on a fundamental level and who is so desperate to make it back into the spotlight, but this opening episode spends way too much reveling in the lacking and the desperation and not enough time developing Valerie as a real person. I am entirely certain that there are real performers in Hollywood who are like Valerie, but this pilot would rather linger on a scene with Valerie trying to do her “confessional” while her husband takes an abnormally large, loud dump than add in a few more bits like her extended attempt to nail a line delivery of a terrible joke.

There’s an understanding going into a project like that this that I am going to be asked to laugh at the lead character. That just happens to be a touchstone of the mockumentary format. But I would also like to be asked to sympathize with her, or even better, be forced to recognize that she actually does have some talent or awareness about her current stock in the television industry. Outside of the aforementioned scene with Valerie practicing her line delivery, The Comeback’s pilot offers next to nothing that makes me feel for or support the character.

This is very unfortunate because Lisa Kudrow is actually really good as Valerie. She does a nice job of separating the character from Friends’ Phoebe, but much like that character, Kudrow takes some lackluster material and makes it at least satisfactory because of her charming work. Like Phoebe, Valerie isn’t always (read: mostly never) aware of her surroundings, but Kudrow works to make Valerie a sadder person, as opposed to Phoebe’s blissful ignorance. Although she’s probably the third or fourth most-famous member of the Friends cast, Kudrow’s done some really fine and diverse work over the last decade. It’s somewhat disappointing that this and Web Therapy didn’t catch on just for her sake, but Kudrow’s still a very interesting performer. And again, she does her best in this pilot, but the writing (which she had a hand in) and the style of The Comeback don’t do her any favors.

I don’t want to belabor any comparison points, but this pilot’s issues remind me of similar issues with the early episodes of The Office and Parks and Recreation and not just because of the shooting style. Those two NBC series and The Comeback all struggle with the perception and persona of their lead character. Like Valerie Cherish, Michael Scott and Leslie Knope lacked much self-awareness and mugged for the camera too often, which led to both the other characters and the audience not caring for them. The Office and Parks and Recreation were able to fix their respective leads after short first seasons and perhaps the biggest problem with The Comeback is the straight-through 13-episode run didn’t allow the writers to take a step back and recalibrate their lead character.* Again, perhaps things changed as this single season moved along and I hope that they did. I don’t want to watch any more of The Comeback, but I hope it improved.

*Again, I’m curious as to if Michael Schur noticed these things as The Comeback went along and therefore helped cure similar problems when he moved on to The Office and Parks and Recreation. Although one would think that if he noticed them here and helped fix them when he got to The Office, Schur would have avoided the issues with Leslie all together. Goodness, the people in Hollywood are stupid. (Not really.)

Ultimately, The Comeback pilot fundamentally stumbles on every level. It tries to present a biting commentary into the world of television production – it doesn’t do that. It tries to present comedy in a “new” package, format or style – it doesn’t do that and ignores its own outwardly-discussed rules. It tries to parody the ignorant lives of has been celebrities – it doesn’t really do that and hampers its lead character in the process. Along the way, The Comeback tries to be funny – and it sure as hell doesn’t do that.

HBO has had a number of “failures” in its run as television’s biggest power-player. However, many of them, we can interrogate, examine and analyze in such a way that it’s hard to call them failures in the traditional sense. K Street’s a failure, but the fact that it made to the air is compelling in of itself. Carnivàle, Rome and Deadwood all ended before their respective masterminds wanted them to, but they all provided substantial, engaging television before meeting their budget-related demises. But The Comeback? Its cancellation makes a lot more sense and its failure is a lot more conventional. Hey, it happens. Even if you’re HBO.

But before we go, I’m wondering: Does the HBO “not TV” model resist successful, flat-out funny comedies?

Obviously, I’m not blind to Curb Your Enthusiasm or Extra’s successes or the legend of The Larry Sanders Show, but I’m wondering if those three series are byproducts of fantastic comedic minds and feature novel hooks (mostly inside connections to Hollywood) that help them stand out. Outside of those three offerings, HBO hasn’t had much luck or really even tried to produce a comedy that is, well, that funny. Sex and the City and Entourage provided many other things before laughs and HBO’s current slate of “comedies” (How to Make it America, Hung and Enlightened) are more like 30-minute dramas than comedies.

Perhaps HBO is so obsessed with the “not TV” model that they are afraid to take on a wacky workplace or “six friends hanging out” comedy? What would a HBO workplace comedy actually look like? Would it be awful? I’m not really sure, but I’m curious as to what impact HBO’s brand-sustaining aims have on its comedy development. That’s something we’ll address next time when we tackle Lucky Louie, I’m guessing.

Conclusions on legacy: Surprisingly mediocre and derivative, despite evidence to the contrary


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