Valerie Cherish is forever seeking the most flattering light — from the cameras of the hapless reality-TV crew that surround her, from the two-faced Hollywood cronies who mock her, from life itself — and the tragic comedy of HBO's The Comeback, making its own most-welcome comeback (Sunday, 10/9c) after nearly a decade off the air, is that she so rarely finds it.
The inspired creation of the brilliant Lisa Kudrow (who plays Valerie with a determined rictus that's part cheesy grin, part grimace) and her producing partner Michael Patrick King, The Comeback is a mockumentary that may have been ahead of its time in 2005. Back then, Valerie was a delusional fallen starlet of fleeting sitcom fame whose humiliating return to TV in a dreadful flop (Room and Bored) was captured on camera by a dutiful reality-TV crew that recorded every mortifying behind-the-scenes moment.
Years pass, and Valerie is possibly sadder — she blew her chance to be a Bravo Real Housewife — but certainly no wiser as the new season begins. We are reintroduced to her as she bosses around a new amateur crew, remembering no one's name except for the one who's there by nepotism, hoping to sell a new reality-TV pitch. (Bravo's Andy Cohen, one of many insiders playing themselves, gets caught in the crossfire.) Ever resilient and malleable, Valerie changes course when she learns that HBO is developing a dramedy, Seeing Red, based on her experiences on The Comeback and featuring a character obviously based on Valerie (named Mallory). The fact that it's an unflattering version of herself is hardly a surprise, given that the show is being written by her Room and Bored nemesis, obnoxious producer Paulie G (Lance Barber), for whom Seeing Red is his own chance for a post-rehab comeback.
In a meta moment that's so startlingly hyper-real it's almost surreal, Valerie storms into HBO's offices to complain, but instead finds herself cast in the role of a lifetime — as herself — all while the reality-TV cameras keep rolling. The multiple levels of show-biz satire on The Comeback, which is even better than before, can be dizzying, deliciously so. (In one terrific twist, Seth Rogen is cast as the fictional version of Paulie G, and his rapport with Kudrow-as-Valerie-as-Mallory is something to behold.)
No matter how squirm-inducing the situation, including an excruciating trip to the Golden Globes that reveals her true place in the industry's pecking order, Valerie never gives up or gives in. All the world is her reality-TV stage, but this time around, the experience is richer because we actually start believing she deserves better than she gets. When a journalist visits the Seeing Red set and describes her actual performance on the show as "brave," it only stokes Valerie's insecurities. Vain, vapid Valerie can only see how she looks to herself, never imagining she might actually have talent. (In a glimpse of a hair-care informercial she appeared in during her long hiatus, Valerie is ID'd as both "television star" and "actress," as if the two were mutually exclusive.)
It would all be terribly sad it if it weren't so incredibly funny. While I don't believe for a moment that HBO would ever green-light a show like Seeing Red (which looks almost as awful in its pretentious way as Room and Bored was in its pathetic retro pandering), I couldn't be more thrilled that the network has finally seen the light to give The Comeback another try. Its time has come.
Want more TV news and reviews? Subscribe to TV Guide Magazine now!
MAKING AIRWAVES: When an observer helpfully points out to a long-winded member of the fictional News Night TV-news crew that, "You're giving a monologue," the response is instant: "Everyone does where I work." For better and for worse, as fans of Aaron Sorkin's exhilarating but often exasperating hyper-verbal style have come to accept. But as HBO's The Newsroom returns for a truncated six-episode final season (Sunday, 9/8c), it appears that less may be more — as in, more absorbing and more entertaining, with less irritation from slapstick rom-com subplots that tend to make smart people (especially the women) look insultingly stupid.
The banter is still there, also the various romantic complications, though quickly overshadowed by events, and not merely those in the headlines — including breaking-news alerts regarding the Boston Marathon bombing that the ACN brain trust is alarmingly slow to broadcast, still being gun-shy over their last public credibility scandal. "If I learn what happened by watching the news, I'm going to lose my f-ing mind!" howls the great Sam Waterston as dyspeptic boss Charlie Skinner.
The volatile, timely storyline juggles journalistic ethics (a WikiLeaks-inspired situation creating dire new legal headaches) with financial pressures, including a CNN-like ratings plunge and a potential hostile takeover of ACN's parent company (prompting the return of the fabulous Jane Fonda as CEO Leona Lansing) leaving everyone on staff wondering if they're about to get new owners, and if so, who?
It may not be the end of the world, as a dour environment expert proclaims on air (played by a very amusing Paul Lieberstein, formerly of The Office and now an executive producer), but this is the end of The Newsroom as we know it. Glad to see the final act getting off to such a robust start.
SPACING OUT: Seems everyone wants to visit Springfield in The Simpsons' 26th season on Fox. Homer & Co. are probably still cleaning up after Family Guy's Griffin clan, and now in a long-overdue and predictably hilarious crossover (Sunday, 8/7c), the Planet Express gang from Matt Groening's beloved sci-fi spoof Futurama shows up from the 31st century to save the future from whatever it was that someone in the Simpson clan put in a time capsule a millennium earlier. The irascible robot Bender leads the charge, initially bonding with fellow beer enthusiast Homer until reminded that his mission is more sinister. "Why must you kill my dad," Lisa whines, "Especially when cheeseburgers are doing the work for you?" The gags are plentiful, the humor timeless enough to still play a thousand years from now — when, for all we know, The Simpsons will still be going strong. Just beware the Hypnotoad. And if that means anything at all to you, there's no way you're not going to watch.