Ranking the Labor Day weekend's summer-season finales:
Entourage (HBO): Highest marks. What a brilliant second season this show had, primarily because there finally was such a juicy story to tell. Ari, ousted from his plush office in the superb next-to-last episode, takes a client meeting — who knew Richard Schiff yearned to be a tough guy? — at a Coffee Bean shop. (What, Starbucks was too common?) Speaking of common, what a riot that Johnny Drama's louse of an agent — the kid who helped get Ari fired — is such a bottom-runger that when Johnny barges into his office, he's taking a meeting with the execrable Pauly Shore. Eric, as usual, is in way over his head, taking a meeting with Ari's supersmarmy boss Terence, who advises the kid to become an agent and "invest without emotion," as if clients were commodities like stocks.
Which is why Ari's final-appeal meeting with Eric was so well-timed. Ari's pitch to Eric is all about loyalty and friendship, and in the wake of Eric's fallout with Vince (who also fired Ari), it turns out the master of insincere hugging is best at closing a deal when he tugs at the heart. So in the final reel, Ari is back in business, the buddies are all back together (no longer giving the silent treatment to Vince), even Turtle has career options as a rap manager and Vince, as expected, has finally agreed to do James Cameron's "Aquaman" (coming summer 2006). Ah, the pleasures of a happy ending.
The Closer (TNT): Very satisfying. Kyra Sedgwick clearly had a ball in her first season playing deputy chief and master interrogator Brenda Turner, who cloaked her go-for-the-jugular technique in a honeyed Southern drawl. Resented and openly mocked by her reluctant coworkers in the L.A. police department, she eventually won them over, just as she had millions of viewers. When a "conduct unbecoming" complaint was filed against her in the finale — supposedly anonymously, although everyone knew it came from her rival in the Robbery Homicide Division, Captain Taylor (Robert Gossett) — even her most vociferous critics stood by her, threatening to resign if she was transferred or demoted. You could see it coming, but it was still enjoyable to watch, as was the scene when she was brought before her foes from the FBI and district attorney's office to make a public apology, only to say she was sorry they didn't perform their jobs better.
Brenda's a terrific character, and Sedgwick may well be a front-runner for dramatic actress at the Emmys a year from now. She's terrifically appealing, both on the job and in her mess of a personal life, where her lousy sense of direction is exceeded only by her awkward attempts to tend to her housecats and find time for her patient FBI boyfriend (Jon Tenney). My only real gripe about The Closer is that the episodes often strained so hard to provide a surprise "twist" that, eventually, you stopped being surprised. Still, I'm surprised I enjoyed this summer procedural so much.
The Comeback (HBO): Better than I expected, although I still think this annoyingly obvious show should have been titled "The Set-Up," given that each episode existed mainly as a pretext to set up the character of pathetically delusional sitcom actress Valerie Cherish (brilliantly played by Lisa Kudrow), only to knock her down. "Reality TV is humiliation TV," she says in the finale, as if that's a fresh insight. "People's characters are being destroyed just so other people have something to TiVo." She is probably the only person surprised that the reality-show producers had twisted her words and actions to make her "Comeback" "the 'crazy actress' show."
The moment she openly bad-mouthed on camera her heinous producer Paulie G, whom she'd notoriously punched in his fat stomach in the previous episode — provoking them both to vomit — you know that in his interview he's going to be (for once) gracious towards her. Yup, sure enough, that's what happens, and Valerie makes a horrified retreat from her opening-night screening party. (As if she wouldn't have at least screened a rough cut first.)
Throughout this episode, however, Kudrow's performance was nothing short of remarkable, especially in the wake of the screening. Feeling betrayed by her producer, Jane, who had conveniently ducked the party, Valerie starts smoking — and fuming, going on about Jane's "mean spider eyes." She drags the reality cameras to Jane's apartment and confronts her, threatening to quit on Jay Leno's Tonight Show the following night. Kudrow's explosion of rage was worth waiting for, and the subtlety of her transformation on the Tonight stage was mesmerizing, as she realizes her latest humiliation (the "double-vomit" scene, as Leno put it) is a big hit. Far from quitting, she has been picked up for a second season after just one episode (a far cry from the retooled, disposable sitcom she's barely appearing in). The panic in her eyes is palpable as Leno screens the vomit scene, and then she erupts in childlike delight when she sees her face on barf bags, distributed to everyone in the Tonight audience. She gets the joke, even if she is the joke.
My problem with The Comeback is that, all in all, it was a pretty thin joke, and even Kudrow's magnificence didn't elevate the show to HBO's usual high standards. I was glad to leave the show with Valerie enjoying a rare moment of bliss, signing autographs outside the Tonight studio while the Association's "Cherish" played on the soundtrack (and as Valerie's long-suffering husband looked on skeptically). The fictional "Comeback" may have gotten a green light for a second season, but for me, the story ends here. I hope HBO doesn't give The Comeback a comeback. Valerie has already come back (for what that's worth, which clearly isn't much). What would be the point?