“I don’t care if you’re available or unavailable. I don’t care if you just found out that you have have herpes or hepatitis C from one of those whores that you pay to come to your room on show nights. I’ve been in this business a lot longer than you have, and I will be in this business long after they take you out in a body bag, because you are gonna OD on some shit that you pump into your veins because you hate yourself. And guess what? I’m your way out. And you’re too fucking stupid to even know it.”
There’s a lot of danger in reviving a dormant TV series. These days, more than ever before, it is possible to resurrect a show that left us too soon, which is how we got movie version of series like Firefly and Veronica Mars and witnessed the return of Arrested Development and 24.
But the results are spotty. It’s all but unheard of for the revival to match the quality of the original in such cases, because if it was beloved enough to have fans clamoring for more, the reason is probably that it was really good. Reception of Arrested Development‘s fourth season on Netflix was mixed, but I don’t think anyone would claim that the latest season outdid the first two. It had been off the air for seven years, and in those years Arrested Development was hailed as one of the great TV comedies of all time. That’s a lot to live up to. A hit TV show arrives at a moment, and it is exceedingly difficult to recapture that moment two or seven or nine years later.
As a major fan of Valerie Cherish, I was looking forward to — but in a way, almost dreading — the comeback of The Comeback. For years I proclaimed that it was the sharpest skewering of the entertainment industry I’d ever seen, that it was pretty much my favorite TV comedy — ever. (Alongside a series about the desperate and degrading shenanigans of another showbiz-mad redhead, I Love Lucy.) Following such hype, it seemed likely (and almost inevitable) that Season Two of The Comeback would fail to fly at such high heights, and might turn out to be merely adequate, good enough but not brilliant. I had faith in Lisa Kudrow and Michael Patrick King and everyone else returning in front of and behind the cameras, but I am also a realist, and after talking up The Comeback for the past nine years, I didn’t want it to come back and be fine and make me look like a dumbass.
Season Two’s third episode, “Valerie Is Brought To Her Knees,” justified the return of Valerie Cherish by matching the quality of Season One’s best episodes. It was fresh and smart and incisive and most of all, it was fucking funny. But what we really want when a show returns to our TV screens nine years after its cancellation is not just for it to be as funny as it was previously, but for it to evolve into something else — its own thing, a series that acknowledges the decade that has passed in the interim. While watching Season Two’s fifth episode, “Valerie Is Taken Seriously,” I suddenly had the feeling that I wasn’t watching my old favorite comedy from nine years ago, but another show entirely. A series that was made in 2014, not a series that was dressing up 2014 like 2005 and hoping no one noticed.
We still have a handful of episodes left before we can judge Season Two in it entirety, to really see how it measures up against the first season, but “Valerie Is Taken Seriously” might as well be titled “The Comeback Is Taken Seriously” because it is the first episode to make it explicitly clear that Season Two has an entirely separate agenda. All of the old stuff still applies; yes, Valerie Cherish is still an oblivious narcissist who can’t get out of her own way, but the relationships are different now, in a way I wasn’t expecting. Maybe things will take a turn, and the next three episodes will have Valerie again facing humiliation after humiliation and everyone else faring better… but I don’t think so. I think I’m onto what The Comeback is really doing in its second season, and I’m loving it. But more on that in a moment.
“Valerie Is Taken Seriously” first gives us some bickering between Valerie Cherish and Jane the producer (and Academy Award-winning Jewish lesbian). It’s reminiscent of several scenes from the first season (most memorably: “Well, I got it!!”), except the power dynamic in this relationship has shifted and Valerie is more argumentative than she ever would have been nine years ago. In the end, she does end up caving to Jane’s demand that Val arbitrarily make up which episode of Seeing Red she’s shooting, which seems like a mere comedic beat when it happens (but ends up being crucial later).
Next, Val heads to set, where she’s filming what she thinks will be a return to her Room And Bored roots. Instead, she’s working entirely without props or other actors to bounce off of, and the “studio audience” is about twenty hired actors who laugh when they’re told to, not when they actually think Valerie is funny. (That’s not all that different from a real studio audience, but Val isn’t happy.) HBO’s Rada and Connor return to explain as kindly as possible that Paulie G is falling behind on his writing duties and will be temporarily replaced by Andie, a female director who in so many ways is the anti-Paulie. For one, she doesn’t hate Valerie on sight, and she’s only mildly miffed when Val steps on her toes to tell her that the “studio audience” will be too jealous of her to chuckle appropriately. (Once they start laughing on command at everything Mallory says, Val’s tune changes.)
Andie is a dancer in addition to a director, so she occasionally busts a move on set, creating a goofy vibe that Valerie tries half-successfully to imitate. Valerie is a little awkward here, but so is Andie, and the two have a funny rapport together. (Are Andie’s dance moves any less embarrassing than Val’s Annie Hall? Not really.) We don’t often see Valerie interact with women who have power over her in the same way we’ve seen her constantly undermined by guys like Tom, Paulie G, and James Burrows in Season One. Val and Andie have a fun chemistry that’s unlike anything we’ve seen on the show before, and though there’s no reason to think that we’ll see Andie in the future (she’s only directing two Seeing Red episodes), she’s probably the best new character we’ve gotten this season. (Possible exception: Seth Rogen, who doesn’t count because he’s playing Seth Rogen.) We can probably bet that the blow job in “Valerie Is Brought To Her Knees” would’ve played out a lot differently had Andie been in charge; as in that episode, there’s some interesting stuff about women’s roles in Hollywood happening here. (More on that later, too.)
This is the densest of The Comeback‘s new episodes, which also has the production of Seeing Red overseen by The New York Times, which pisses off publicist Billy because his own stabs at interviews have been nixed for this “classy” exclusive. This causes temperamental Billy to have a total meltdown, going all Russell Crowe and throwing his phone at one of our little-seen cameramen, then firing himself as Val’s publicist. This is not long before Paulie G explodes when he learns Valerie has seen seen the dailies and she again tries to backseat direct by suggesting he light her scenes differently. At this, Paulie G’s biggest freakout yet, Valerie becomes so concerned with his well-being (and moreso, the well-being of her bid at being a serious actress on a serious premium cable network) that she hunts down a showrunner who hates her a little less. And this is where things get really interesting.
(For me, it was the turning point of this entire season.)
I’d been hoping Tom would return in Season Two. As far as I can remember, his character has gone unmentioned, which made some sense because Paulie G was a much more formidable villain, and his return to The Comeback was absolutely essential — more essential than any other character besides Valerie. (On a story level, at least — though I have a hard time imagining any of this working without Mickey constantly peering over Val’s shoulder, fussing with her hair at inopportune moments. As last week’s episode proved, Valerie can’t function without her best gay, and not just because he’s the only guy who can get her hair to look so very 80s.) It seemed plausible that if Robert Bagnell wasn’t readily available to reprise the Tom role, The Comeback would easily move forward without him — or even that they wouldn’t have reached out to him at all. These eight episodes are already stuffed with returning favorites like Jane and Juna, and a handful of new characters. Tom didn’t have to come back, but I was really hoping he would, because he was such an essential part of the first season. We see him squirming to keep it together every time Val makes an obnoxious request. Though he’s never outright unkind, it’s written all over his face in every moment of Season One what he thinks of her.
And poor, poor Tom — he is now on his fifth season executive producing a pretty wretched Nickelodeon show while his ex-partner is creating a series for HBO. Paulie G was a total dick back in the day, and he’s gotten only marginally better. He may be a halfway decent comedy writer (according to this show’s standards), but now that we know he was shooting heroin all through Room And Bored‘s production, we have even more reason to believe that it was Tom holding that show together all along, and how is he thanked for it? Fate is cruel, and nowhere is it crueler than in Los Angeles.
We learn more about Tom in this one scene than we learned about him all last season, and though he once played the peacekeeper, he’s now much too miserable to hold those emotions in when Val comes traipsing onto his candy-colored Nicky Nicky Nack Nack set. “You’re the monster!” Paulie G announces to Val earlier in the episode, pointedly and probably unfairly; he’s talking about Mallory becoming a CGI creature in a fucked up Seeing Red fantasy sequence, but he’s really talking about the way he’s brainwashed himself into seeing Valerie Cherish as the devil, to such an extent that he had to write a whole series about it. But when Valerie confronts Tom with her well-meaning request to bail Paulie G out of an impending relapse, Tom looks like he wants to dive under a table, like he really has seen a monster. At first, Paulie G telling Val that she’s a monster seems like just another way that he’s a pompous asshole, but Tom’s similar sentiment forces us to really consider: is she?
Season One of The Comeback was all about Valerie Cherish’s degradation. We caught little snippets of what was going on with everyone else, but ultimately, it was all about Valerie. She was the victim and her own worst enemy, and we mainly saw things from the point of view of how they affected Valerie. She was at the lowest point on the totem pole, so painfully unaware of how she was being perceived. Everyone else had this power over her: they knew she was making an ass of herself long before she did, and so, of course, did we.
Season Two still has plenty of that flavor, but it’s added a flip-side. Seeing Red is all about what Paulie G went through, a dark addiction that neither we nor Valerie were privy to. It’s somewhat comical that Paulie G thinks Valerie was such a thorn in his side, when we saw pretty clearly that he was a big fat jerk to her from the get-go. Of course a guy like that would paint the annoying but harmless actress as the bad guy. Of course he would write a self-aggrandizing series that degrades her again and again and colors himself the victim. But adding the more reliable Tom to the mix makes this all more complex.
A decade ago, Tom was a pretty level-headed and reasonable guy. Now he’s a live-wire who will push a man in a worm costume without much provocation. He’s kind of turned into a Paulie G (copping to his own issues with substance abuse). Both Tom and Paulie G are utterly traumatized by their time on Room And Bored, and while Tom paints Paulie G as the Big Bad in his version of the story, we are now forced to consider Valerie’s role in that sitcom in a whole new light. I don’t think it’s fair to say that she drove either Paulie G or Tom to madness — Paulie G would’ve been a heroin-shooting jackass regardless. But Valerie came out of that moment with a hit show (the reality show The Comeback, not Room And Bored) and has gone on to star opposite Seth Rogen on an HBO series.
When Season One ended, Val’s success seemed more like a compromise than a triumph, but in Tom and Paulie G’s eyes, she got the better deal and they got rehab and Nickelodeon. Juna became a movie star, Jane won an Oscar, and none of these people are as happy as they should be, but this isn’t just about Valerie Cherish looking foolish while everyone else winces anymore. In some ways, Valerie actually has the power here — the mere sight of her can make grown men regress into tantrum-throwing children. This season, there are many ways in which Valerie Cherish is really, truly winning, and that’s not something I expected from The Comeback. It’s a totally different M.O., and maybe it’ll change in the next episode. For now, Valerie Cherish is kinda fucking crushing it, and I’m very excited.
Thanks to a little visit from the Grim Reaper, last week’s “Valerie Saves The Show” was The Comeback‘s darkest episode yet, but “Valerie Is Taken Seriously” is also pretty menacing. Shayna the First AD wears a shirt that says “City of Angels,” and that’s no accident — this episode is all about how merciless Hollywood is. A once-promising comedy writer and Emmy winner is barely holding on as the producer of a kids’ show he can’t stand, and the cast of that series isn’t any happier, as evidenced by Gary the fury-filled worm. Tom hates his former partner, also an Emmy winner, who cleaned up his heroin habit and got a show on the most prestigious network around and is utterly joyless. A publicist flies into a rage at the drop of a hat, throwing a hissy fit and quitting his job because he’s been upstaged by the network publicist.
These are funny moments, but they’re sad, too — Billy cries! And while his rant is, on the one hand, rather infantile, it’s also heartfelt and raises a solid point. People like Billy and Tom and Paulie G made sacrifices that allowed Valerie to get where she is, and now it’s not just Red who has fallen prey to the monster that is Hollywood — they’re all in the same boat. In fact, her delusions of grandeur might be the very thing that is saving her from being as despondent as the rest of these people. (Remember: Jane is pretty down on herself, too.) Val’s still the same character, but Season Two has found a new spin on Valerie Cherish’s oblivious optimism. Rather than using it to make her the butt of every joke, this time she may be the luckiest out of any of these characters. (Seth Rogen seems pretty chipper, but again: that’s because he’s just Seth Rogen.)
Interestingly, “Valerie Is Taken Seriously” pretty squarely focuses the onus of its misery on the men. Paulie G, Tom, and Billy fly into major rages, while Mark (in his brief appearance) is also pretty cantankerous, and even Mickey seems a little pissier than usual. (Who would have guessed he’d have such beef with The New York Times crossword puzzle?) In contrast, Jane remains pretty level-headed when she and Val spar, and Andie either genuinely likes Valerie Cherish or at least does a better job of hiding her annoyance than Tom and Paulie G ever did. “Valerie Is Brought To Her Knees” had some pretty on-point criticism of how Hollywood’s boys’ club treats women, but in this episode, the ladies get the last laugh while the men are off sulking. It’s not coincidental that the critic character is also a woman — the sisters are all Team Valerie in this one, while none of the boys do her any favors. (Assuming we can safely count Mickey amongst the sisters.)
Also of note: here Valerie is obsessively worried about her appearance (even moreso than usual). She covers up that awful green body suit with a robe, she battles Paulie G over the unflattering dramatic lighting in Seeing Red, then refuses to let Jane shoot the behind-the-scenes footage with the docu-like lack of luminescence HBO prefers. (And this time, she puts her foot down.) When the New York Times critic refers to her portrayal of Mallory as “brave,” Valerie assumes it is a backhanded compliment that is somehow judging the way she looks. (Which, again, astutely highlights the double standard actresses face in this business. Men who look unattractive in movies are never called “brave.”) It turns out that this woman is giving her an actual compliment, something Valerie Cherish isn’t used to (and probably doesn’t often deserve). That’s why it takes her so long to catch on, worried about how she looks physically when she’s never come off looking better. Valerie is so used to spinning everything she hears into a compliment that she’s become totally deaf to genuine praise. After all her ego trips, what a twist for Valerie to be in denial of her talent, deflecting in the one moment she earns kudos.
Valerie watches the dailies with her “It wall” in the background, a reminder of all the fluffy vanilla material she’s known for. She thinks the scene is too dark, and no one — not even Mickey — agrees with her. Is this a meta-commentary, a way of staving off naysayers who might wish that The Comeback was more goofy fun, less biting and incisive? Maybe, maybe not, but it is telling of Valerie’s character that the first thing she sees when she watches her own tour-de-force performance is that the lighting isn’t flattering, and her I’m It fans don’t want to see her that way. This is the diametric opposite of almost every other episode of the series, where Valerie thinks she’s great and others have a different take on the matter. The script has been flipped, people.
The debate over the lighting is an on-the-nose but apt metaphor for what this episode is about: light-as-a-feather Valerie afraid of going “too dark,” of straying from her sitcom roots, when ironically, everyone else thinks she’s never been better. She’s actually good. (See above, re: Valerie Cherish crushing it.) The whole episode is full of contrasts between light and dark — like when a silly kiddie program takes on a very profane and adult tone, revealing the crushed dreams of its producer. “Valerie Is Taken Seriously” begins with Val bathed in the garish, cheesy reality lights she’s always reveled in; a multicamera sitcom, too, by necessity, has very bland and direct lighting. That’s the world Valerie knows, but she’s moving into darker, more serious territory. And so is The Comeback.
I’m not sure what lesson, if any, Val will take from all this, but it seems like another turning point for this series. If The New York Times genuinely thinks Valerie Cherish has given a raw, revealing performance, then there’s no reason to think the rest of the world won’t agree. We could see Valerie Cherish as a sought-after hot commodity in serious dramatic roles. We could see Valerie Cherish win an Emmy.
Would that ruin the delicious dynamic The Comeback has cooked up thus far, with Val dwindling down on the D list? I don’t think so. I see no reason the show couldn’t be just as funny if Valerie Cherish was working opposite Matthew McConaughey in a Paul Thomas Anderson movie. I think that’s a natural evolution, a smart way for The Comeback to do more than just replay Valerie Cherish’s Greatest Hits from Season One. It would be a nice echo of the way Season One spent thirteen episodes preparing us for the humiliating debut of her reality series, only to surprise us at the very end and turn Valerie’s degradation into her salvation.
But I don’t think The Comeback has to go this route. Maybe Paulie G’s shortcomings are a sign that Seeing Red is going to flop. Valerie’s small victories in this episode could be a blip on the radar. I’m on board regardless. “Valerie Is Taken Seriously” truly surprised me, and though I’ve often said that The Comeback is the smartest and most (unfortunately) accurate dissection of Hollywood I’ve seen, this episode widened the scope in a way I’d never considered. True to its title, it made me take Valerie Cherish seriously. For all the comedy we get from Valerie’s miming of child-dismemberment in a hilariously hideous motion capture suit, this is a serious episode — even more serious than last week’s. There’s a lot of drama here.
My days of fearing that Season Two of The Comeback would be but a pale imitation of its glory days are long gone. The Comeback is doing what it has always done: taking risks and taking no prisoners, while still presenting a deceptively light tone overall. Here Valerie Cherish is asked to portray a monster that eats Paulie G’s inner child, but we all know that the monster is really the profession he’s chosen — the same monster that devoured Billy and Tom’s inner children, and who knows how many others? I feel bad for Tom and Billy and maybe even Paulie G, but it’s also nice to see Red on top of the world by episode’s end for a change. She gets a sweet gift from Seth Rogen and proclaims that it’s a good day, and for Valerie Cherish, it is. As dark as this episode goes at times, it also has one of the series’ sunniest endings.
We don’t yet know if Valerie Cherish’s portrayal of Mallory on Seeing Red is Emmy-worthy, but I can say with certainty that this episode of The Comeback is. It’s unlikely that the Hollywood monster really will take this little-watched but much-loved comedy seriously, but I do. This is one of The Comeback‘s very best episodes.
“Valerie Is Taken Seriously”: A