“I don’t know what kind of candy you’re making, but I’m a coal miner!”
As comedies go, The Comeback rides a fine line between the light and the dark. The breezy tone suggests screwball comedy, yet the way it skewers every facet of Hollywood is so biting and dead-on that it really does, at times, feel like a docudrama. The way we squirm and cringe through each awkward day in the life of a C-list actress makes viewing as uncomfortable as it is hilarious. Yet even in its darkest moments, like Paulie G’s drug use or last week’s battle with misogyny, The Comeback has eschewed truly grim material.
Until Season Two’s fourth episode, “Valerie Saves The Show,” which tackles an entirely new subject for the series — death.
Things start off light enough. In “Valerie Saves The Show,” the cruelties of the television industry continue to plague Valerie Cherish, beginning with some fairly mundane ones — budgetary restrictions — which means her character Mallory (who she still constantly confuses with herself) will be drastically cut back and thus rendered less sympathetic to the audience. (Seeing Red contains some crucial drinking alone, crying in the tub, finding a stray cat scenes, apparently, which sounds exactly like the kind of hack work Paulie G would insert into this story.) Apparently, HBO didn’t feel the urge to bless Seeing Red with the same production value afforded to, say, Game Of Thrones.
Val’s creative solution: to allow the production to use her own home as Mallory’s, further blurring the line between fact and fiction.
This is, of course, a major imposition on Val’s loveball, Marky-Mark, who finds his home overrun by strangers, his precious espresso maker moved out of reach. “It’s not a crime scene!” Val explains of his reluctance to interfere, a prophetic foreshadowing of things to come later in the episode. But first? A trip to the the Groundlings, where Valerie can hone her improvisational skills (actually: show off how little she knows about improv).
Last week, Val made a pretty killer direct-to-camera improv involving rape that was entirely inappropriate for the moment; this week, she tries to mine some humor out of cancer, and fails yet again. She also tries to mine some humor out of actual mining, as she stiffly plays a coal miner opposite a taffy-maker and then asks the instructor: “Now what?” Improv is all about teamwork, so it comes as no shocker that Valerie Cherish is lousy at it. She can’t lose herself in the moment or consider a scene partner her equal. She assumes the Groundlings will be intimidated by her because “I’m a professional” — but yeah, no, they are not.
Unfortunately, during the break, Val gets some disturbing news from her loyal sidekick. Mickey may have cancer. And while Val ordinarily tends to shrug off or completely ignore Mickey’s feelings, especially when they might drag down the mood of her reality show, this time she’s truly rattled by the thought of losing her faithful companion, which is how this line creeps into her improv: “Only two reasons to be out of work: bad economy or cancer. Do you have cancer?”
This brings us right to the heart of Valerie and Mickey’s curious friendship, which has always been one of the show’s strongest yet subtlest anchors. Mickey is more than just Val’s hairdresser — most of the time, he’s treated like a glorified assistant. (At times, not even so glorified.) His true role in her life, of course, is that he’s her biggest fan. Notice how he’s the only one laughing during her terrible improv? And yet it doesn’t seem like a courtesy laugh. He really does think she’s funny.
Mickey must love Valerie in order to put up with her for all these years, getting so little in return. He must believe in her talent. He seems totally content playing second-fiddle to her at every turn. What’s not so readily apparent is how Valerie feels about Mickey — we know she depends on him, but is this because she truly enjoys his company, or because he’s the only person in her life willing to put up with all her shit?
People get exasperated to varying degrees with Valerie Cherish. Not all of them call her out on it, but even those on Team Valerie defect every so often, as Mark does in this episode. (And not without reason.) Mickey is the only one who has never turned his back on Red, not even for an instant — though some telling looks to camera let us know he’s hip to Val’s least likable moments. Mickey is an essential part of Valerie’s life because he sees her the way she wants to be seen, allowing her to buy into all those delusions she carries around about her own importance. Without Mickey, Val wouldn’t have the validation she needs to invest as strongly as she does in her own brand. Mickey is constantly selling her on the story she wants to believe, the one she is trying (and failing) to tell via reality TV. Is this a true friendship, or just a narcissist’s gross misuse of a doting fan? I think the jury’s still out on that.
No matter the reason, Val is visibly shaken up by Mickey’s possible bout with cancer, which is how the Big C continually creeps up in her improv (and causes her to drop her fictional baby). Val is told by her instructor that cancer is not funny, and tellingly, “Valerie Saves The Show” takes on a heavier tone than usual once that topic is broached, even if the C-word is mostly absent from the rest of the episode. Val’s nephew Tyler is starting to “go Hollywood,” mouthing off to his boss and deciding he’d be just as good a star as Seth Rogen. (Probably false, buddy.) Val’s selfishness takes a holiday when she decides to use Tyler as Mickey’s gopher, a nice reversal of the way she usually has Mickey fetch for her. (In Valerie’s universe, there’s always someone who has nothing better to do than cater to her every whim — though she’s right that it’s in Tyler’s job description.)
Mark gets star-struck by Seth Rogen and makes a Valerie-like snafu in front of the wheelchair-bound line producer Ron. (Rogen is wisely underused in the episode, following a big role in last week’s episode.) TV production is depicted as the headache-inducing nightmare it usually is, rather than something that tends to bring Valerie joy. Even she is more pessimistic than usual. Valerie goes on a rant about Tyler’s self-congratulatory generation and explains how Ron got injured; paired with Mark’s foul attitude and Mickey’s medical diagnosis, this whole episode feels almost oppressive in its cynicism and gloominess, despite the levity offered by Val’s stabs at improv.
“Valerie Saves The Show” first introduces the very real possibility that Mickey could be facing death in the near future, then ends up somewhere darker as Val and Mark stop by their property to stay the night (because of Seeing Red‘s takeover of their own home). Jane is up to her old wily tricks, spying on Val after she’s asked them to turn the cameras off, and just when filming is about to wrap for the night, a gunshot startles the crew. A man has killed himself in the next apartment.
This isn’t a character we’ve met before, but it’s still the darkest moment of the series thus far, and it doesn’t seem accidental that it comes in an episode that already has us thinking about our beloved Mickey’s mortality. This gives Valerie a chance to call upon her vast CSI knowledge (she once had a guest spot) and to coin her new version of “Jane! Jane!” time-out hands: “N.G.,” which stands for “no good.”
Ironic: Val and Mark are refugees of a production about a drug addict, and go to stay in a place where a real drug addict has just offed himself. One of the cops who responds to the scene offers an unknowing warning to Val about drug users who turn their lives around — that tends to be when they snap, bringing the people around them down, too. Is this a harbinger of an even darker turn from Paulie G? Will his villainy resurface? I’d say that’s a safe bet.
We’re midway through The Comeback‘s (criminally short) Season Two now, and I’d also wager that this is likely the darkest the series will get. I don’t anticipate a wrenching chemo arc for Mickey or any more gunplay, though there’s still a feeling of dread created by what happens here. Nothing goes according to plan, everything falls apart, everyone is cranky (except, ironically, Mickey), and though Valerie tries to save the show, her fix is just a Band-Aid on a production with much larger problems.
To sum it up, basically everything that happens in “Valerie Saves The Show” is N.G., a somewhat sour half-hour with a few comedic high points. (Curiously, even the title is a mystery, since “Valerie Saves The Show” was also the title of a Season One episode. Is this an oversight, or an intentional callback?) Perhaps the death of a stranger is meant to put the stresses of production into perspective — though in this episode, for once, it’s Valerie who is concerned about real-world problems while everyone else is freaking out about more superficial concerns.
When revisited, this episode takes on a sweetness that offsets the bitter visit by the Grim Reaper. This is maybe the most we’ve ever seen Valerie care about anybody. For once, there’s nothing in it for her, unless you believe that she only cares about Mickey as her one-man fan club and not as a human being. Last week’s “Valerie Is Brought To Her Knees” was the high point of the season, the sharpest of the new episodes. This one is the most subtle and character-driven, from the genuinely empathetic look on Jane’s face when Mickey delivers troubling news to Val chewing out Tyler for not respectfully grabbing his elder a snack when he needs one.
The Comeback is all about Valerie Cherish, but in this episode, we are forced to take a moment to truly consider the little people. Valerie fails to disappear into character during her improv, but all around her, real feelings are felt, from Mark’s anger to Mickey’s optimistic joy and a solitary drug addict’s wish to die. Even Valerie connects with her humanity more than usual. Cancer may not be funny, but it can bring out an unexpected poignancy where you’d least expect, which is a curious but not entirely unwelcome turn for The Comeback.
“Valerie Saves The Show”: B+