“No one? Really? Not ‘no one,’ Mark, because I believed in me. I’m not no one. That’s not nice. Maybe you don’t think I’m someone, but I have a birth certificate that says I am. Maybe you should talk to the Television Academy, ’cause they think I’m someone. Okay? They think I’m someone!”
The Comeback was first canceled back in 2005, presumably because many viewers didn’t know what to make of it. Most people I know who watch the show love it, but I have heard some who say they find the perpetual awkwardness off-putting. The Comeback makes them laugh, but it also made them genuinely uncomfortable, and they don’t necessarily enjoy that.
I’m a masochist, so I do.
However, the penultimate episode of Season Two, “Valerie Faces The Critics,” did provoke the most visceral reaction the show has gotten out of me yet. Most shows might “learn their lesson” from Season One’s cancellation and aim for a lighter second season; instead, The Comeback doubled down on darkness. This was most apparent in the season’s fourth episode, “Valerie Saves The Show,” which seemed somewhat uncharacteristically dark until subsequent episodes neglected to lighten up much. Season Two has continued straying down that path, as Mickey’s health deteriorates along with Mark and Valerie’s marriage, and we peer into the many lives that have been soured or altogether ruined by “the business” — Billy’s, Tom’s, Gigi’s, and of course Paulie G’s.After viewing Episode 5 of this season, “Valerie Is Taken Seriously,” I predicted that The Comeback was spinning in a new and entirely different direction than Season One — instead of making Val the butt of all jokes, a “lonely loser of an actress” (as Julie Chen puts it here), she would instead find some measure of success and deal with the fallout. “Valerie Faces The Critics” confirms that, but pushes it into more complex emotional territory than I anticipated. This season of The Comeback is not afraid to go for the jugular, nor to push Valerie Cherish into a very dicey position in terms of likeability. There’s plenty of comedy in this episode, but there’s also an overwhelmingly gloomy cloud of tragedy that will test even The Comeback‘s most loyal devotees.
I’ve grown so used to Valerie Cherish that I tend to revel in her ineptitude, but in this episode I was truly uncomfortable, to the extent that I almost felt bad. It’s the closest I’ve come to understanding why some people might not want to watch this show, which doesn’t at all mean that I didn’t want to watch it. The Comeback is typically a brilliant comedy, and frequently provides some insightful drama. But for fans of Valerie Cherish — and I think we can all agree that I’m one of the biggest — “Valerie Faces The Critics” is a horror movie.Ironically, the season’s most morally murky episode begins with Valerie Cherish’s greatest triumph to date — an honest-to-God Emmy nomination, something no one saw in her future (except Valerie herself). We find out about it via Val’s appearance on The Talk, and while this is huge for our heroine, we don’t see her discover the news but rather catch up with her in the midst of a flurry of high-profile press appearances. While The Comeback is often anal about showing us each and every excruciating step of the creative process, here we gloss over what may be Valerie Cherish’s biggest turning point this season. It’s not an oversight — we’re meant to be jarred by the “new” Valerie Cherish, which puts us in the position of those who are reacting to her — in this episode, mostly Mark and Mickey.
It’s also not an accident that Val begins this episode by explicitly stating to the ladies of The Talk that Seeing Red is a dark comedy. She may as well be talking about The Comeback: “This is, you know, edgy.” The Talk also brings up the topic of Val’s marriage, breaking out Valerie and Mark’s ski slope wedding photos — which becomes extra poignant upon a second viewing, once we know where this episode is taking us.
Val, Esperanza, and Mickey watch The Talk appearance, and Mickey’s obviously seen better days. (He falls asleep on the sofa, and for a brief terrifying moment I thought he might be dead — and that’s not the only time that happened in this episode.) Jane and Val have an amusing exchange equating Jane’s vegetarianism with her disdain for other forms of meat that might enter her body, then Billy drops by with some good news about a cushy Entertainment Tonight stint that forces Jane to pull her HBO documentarian trump card and rain all over the parade. Often, Jane’s instincts for incisive storytelling are spot on, even if they are at odds with Val’s dignity, but this time she might be pulling rank just because she can. Is there really any harm in letting Entertainment Tonight follow Val around for one lousy day? It’s not the last time this episode made me wonder if deep down, Jane Benson the Jewish Academy Award-winning lesbian might not be just a heartless bitch.Later, a phone call confirms just how bad Val’s marriage is at the moment — Valerie and Mark are officially separated and seeing a marriage counselor. We hear only Valerie’s end of this conversation, as she sits alone on the former marriage bed — where we saw many of Mark and Valerie’s most memorable interactions throughout the series — and she does indeed look like a “lonely loser of an actress.” She manages to convince Mark to meet her for a therapist-forbidden “sneak date,” which provides this episode’s riveting, haunting centerpiece.
As Valerie is about to walk in to dinner, she finds her cameras awaiting her (and other cameras awaiting Ryan Seacrest at SoulCycle). Valerie’s saner instincts kick in as she wisely nixes the idea of surreptitiously filming the reconciliation (with one of her trademark “absolutely not”s). Jane, however, assertively states that she needs this scene, knowing Valerie will cave because it makes good TV. It’s absolutely soul-crushing to watch Valerie give in to Jane’s demands here, because while Jane says the audience will want to know how Mark and Valerie mended their marriage, she knows full well that Mark would never tolerate a candid camera in this vulnerable and private moment — and she also knows Valerie isn’t stealthy enough to pull it off without Mark noticing. Jane throws Valerie’s marriage under the bus for her own selfish pursuit of a juicy documentary (which this is sure shaping up to be).
Jane has always been a morally questionable character on The Comeback, obviously complicit in the humiliation Valerie faced on the show-within-the-show Comeback back in Season One. However, we could also often see that Jane was conflicted about what she was doing, and her claims that editing was out of her hands rang at least half-true. But now Jane is not slave to a network. HBO probably doesn’t much care about this documentary, if they even remember it exists in the first place. Jane is a free agent, working solo, going rogue, and this time, her decision to document Valerie’s downfall is all her own. Worse, she’s willing to manipulate Valerie to make it happen, showing no sign of remorse. Valerie is ultimately to blame for allowing it to happen, but she did arrive at this dinner with the best of intentions. She’s just weak. Jane pushed all the right buttons, including a big red one that caused Valerie to self-destruct. If we thought “spider-eyes” Jane was marginally the bad guy in Season One, then Season Two’s Jane is a supervillain. She may think she’s making a feminist documentary about Valerie Cherish being abused and “assassinated” by Hollywood, but guess what, Jane? You’re the assassin now.The dinner does not go well. We know it’ll blow up in her face the moment Valerie agrees to wear a mic — or “a wire,” as Mark more astutely puts it. The blowout that ensues is predictable, at first, because we know Mark will be pissed. Reconciliation is not in the cards tonight. But the way this fight explodes and cuts straight to the heart of this marriage, touching on so many flaws and insecurities in both of these characters — well, it’s a breathtaking scene with some of the best work these actors have ever done on the series (or ever), and while it is very specific to these characters it is also universally about the ways any marriage might crumble.
Valerie and Mark both lay bare their feelings and unsparingly accuse each other of all sorts of love crimes, and as in most actual arguments, they’re both right. Both speak truth, both have demons, and neither one is the bad guy in this scenario. Yes, Valerie’s comeback has probably dealt this marriage its biggest blow, but Valerie’s not wrong when she says that she deserves to enjoy her success just as much as Mark has enjoyed his. Mark admits he isn’t as supportive of a successful Valerie as he thought he’d be. He’d rather have his desperate nobody back.
“Is there any part of you that is real anymore?” Mark asks at the beginning of the row, and at the end: “Are you even in there anymore?” In his eyes, at least, Valerie is now the shell of herself — a famous shell who cares more about her life looking great than actually being great. (She doesn’t know how to explain Mark’s absence at the Emmy’s, which may or may not be why she so desperately wants him to attend.) Mark might be on point with many of his criticisms, but Valerie has also worked extremely hard to get where she is now. She’s waited her whole life for this, and on some level, it’s a little cruel of Mark to want to take that from her just so he can have their simple life back. He feels threatened by the attention his wife is now receiving, threatened by the fact that he is no longer the sole person who loves Valerie Cherish (aside from Mickey). She can now get that love from other sources, and he can’t handle it.
Of course, the “love” one gets from the masses only goes so far and is in no way a suitable replacement for the love of a true partner, and if Valerie doesn’t realize that yet, she will shortly. In her heartbreaking rant, Valerie tells Mark that the Television Academy thinks she’s somebody — and while that is, on the one hand, totally depressing, it also explains why she seeks that approval so cravenly. If Mark doesn’t love who Valerie is right now, perhaps he never really loved her at all. It’s no wonder Valerie seeks adulation from another source, one that has, apparently, noticed and appreciated her hard work. Mark has never understood (or cared to understand) Val’s line of work, but she’s poured everything into it and now, at last, she’s recognized for it. That may not excuse all of Valerie’s questionable behavior in this episode, but it’s a place to start, and Mark can’t see past his annoyance at the constant surveillance long enough to comprehend why Valerie craves this.
Valerie Cherish gets an Emmy nomination for an HBO dark comedy in “Valerie Faces The Critics.” Lisa Kudrow should get one, too — she’s stellar throughout the series, obut her “I’m not nobody!” speech alone should seal the deal. (It likely won’t, though, given the show’s tiny viewership.) Arguably, this scene tells us more about Valerie Cherish than we’ve ever learned before (I was reminded of last season’s episode that gave us a brief, painful glimpse into her past as a high school outcast with scoliosis). The Comeback has never been afraid to get its hands dirty, but with the double-whammy reveals of Mark’s infidelity and Valerie’s abortion? Well, shit just got realer.
And that’s not even the end of the episode.
As edgy as The Comeback gets at times, I was fairly certain it would not go so dark to have Valerie walk in and discover Mickey’s naked dead body, so I wasn’t too surprised when she happily announced that he was breathing. (Funny moment, though.) I was more surprised by the gentleman, several decades Mickey’s junior, unapologetically popping out of the bathroom in his birthday suit. As bad as Val’s fight with Mark was, her invasion of Mickey’s privacy here feels in some ways like an even greater betrayal, as her cameras again capture a moment that would best be left undocumented. Valerie meant well when she stopped to check on Mickey, and again it is Jane who ensures that the cameras are in place before the action happens. (You could make the argument that Valerie just wants her hair done right, but I think it’s obvious that she’s more concerned about Mickey’s well-being than her curls.)For the time being, Mickey isn’t too upset about Val barging in on him (because he’s still drunk, maybe), or even the possibility that his large pasty backside will end up in an HBO documentary alongside his paramour’s dick. It’s shocking enough that he made the rare choice to put himself before Valerie, prioritizing some inebriated hanky-panky over his beloved Red — probably because he senses he doesn’t have a lot more opportunities to cut loose on the horizon. (He has no problem getting it up, though.) Whether or not Mickey succumbs to illness (which might be a shade too dark for this series), Valerie may be losing her biggest fan, and we certainly can’t blame Mickey for realizing he has better ways to spend his old age than constantly fluffing Red’s ‘do.
It has been clear for a few episodes that Val’s two greatest champions, Mark and Mickey, may not be around that much longer, and “Valerie Faces The Critics” brings those losses to a boiling point. As with most Comeback titles, “Valerie Faces The Critics” is both quite literal (as Val does press for Seeing Red) but has a broader meaning. Valerie’s two greatest supporters become her harshest critics. Mickey used to practically live for doing Val’s hair, and now he’s totally forgotten about her, blowing her off for a steamy hookup with a stranger. And of course Mark had some extremely harsh criticism in the earlier confrontation, most of which was accurate. Just as the rest of the world is finally beginning to cherish Valerie, those who really love her are pulling away. It’s sad stuff.
By the time Valerie actually faces “the critics” (mostly some freaky bloggers, ahem), there isn’t much criticism she hasn’t already heard, and she deflects it well. Bob (of the Paulie G-maligned BobTV.com) insinuates that laugh tracks are fake, which Valerie doesn’t take kindly to, while a nerdy blogger named Daphne reveals a rather embarrassing curiosity about fellating Seth Rogen — and questions the role of women on Seeing Red. After brushing off a lipstick-wearing male who deserves to be brushed off, Valerie gets her most insightful comment from a blogger who reads (too?) deeply into meanings of metaphors on a seemingly facile show. (Okay, I’ll say it: this character reminded me of me.) What this blogger doesn’t know is that Valerie herself needs to stop playing a version of herself if she wants to save her friendships and marriage.
“Valerie Faces The Critics” ends in an elevator, as Paulie G asks Valerie if he can tag along with her to Juna’s party. (Yay: more Juna!) She declines, maybe because she legitimately can’t get him in or maybe because she just doesn’t want to. The tables have turned — in terms of the elevator metaphor, Valerie is going up and Paulie G is going down, but there’s something sad and empty about this little victory over her nemesis. Back in Season One, we would have relished a chance to see Valerie rub her stardom in Paulie G’s face, but The Comeback isn’t interested in such easy wins.
And speaking of roles for women, here’s another non-accident: this episode features Valerie and Jane at their least likeable, boldly going where few other series do — difficult men are all over TV, but hard-to-like females are much rarer. Here we learn that the “working title” of Jane’s HBO documentary is The Assassination Of Valerie Cherish, which is also a fitting title for this episode.
This is Valerie Cherish at her least likeable — and, not coincidentally, her most successful. If many viewers found Val narcissistic and hard to warm up to before, they’ll be truly put off by her here. I am one of Valerie Cherish’s biggest fans, and even I was uneasy with what transpired in this episode. Valerie should know better than to wear a mic to dinner with her husband when their marriage is on the rocks; she should know better than to let Jane provoke her into dramatic confrontations all over again. At heart, I don’t believe Valerie Cherish is a bad person — she’s certainly self-involved, but I don’t think she’s truly selfish.
In this episode, she is, though. Up until this point, I would have said Valerie was a better person than in the first season, but “Valerie Faces The Critics” challenges that, essentially “assassinating” what we love about Valerie and turning her into a deceitful, shallow stereotype. TV shows tend to maintain a status quo — especially comedies — but this episode threatens much of what we hold dear. Mark and Valerie might very well be done, Mickey’s health and behavior are changing their relationship, and Valerie herself becomes the very sort of person who tormented her all these years. Just another famous bitch.
This episode proves that Jane doesn’t care about Valerie’s well-being, and we can probably guess that Billy is a fair-weather friend. It’s disheartening to see Valerie surrounded mostly by people who just want to leech off her success, as the people who are truly there for her are… well, not there, anymore. It’s actually quite painful to sit through this episode, because if you love the show as I do, you are deeply invested in these relationships that are imploding right before our eyes, and all because Valerie is making all the wrong choices. Valerie and Mark? Boom. Valerie and Mickey? Boom. Valerie and Jane? Boom.
With the way “Valerie Faces The Critics” tests us, perhaps we are the titular critics, challenged with the question of whether or not we still love Valerie Cherish after all this. Next week is the season finale, and quite possibly the series finale if HBO doesn’t bring Val back for a round three. (It’s hard to imagine what direction this show would head in a third season, having seemingly exhausted Valerie’s arc from nobody to somebody as well as all the meta fun of Seeing Red.) It wouldn’t be uncharacteristic of The Comeback to end cynically, with Valerie losing Mark and Mickey and becoming a “lonely loser of an actress” like Mallory Church.
But I don’t think this show is truly going to “assassinate” Valerie like that. Its creators, like its audience, love Valerie too much to leave her in such a lurch and let her become the monster that Paulie G thought she was. The Comeback may be dark, but it’s never truly bleak. If I had to guess, I’d wager that this is just a low point before Valerie wises up (to an extent). I don’t know that she can save her marriage, but I do believe that she will save her soul from the muck its currently caught in.
Mark and Mickey are all but done fighting for her, and the rest of Team Val only has their own selfish pursuits in mind. At this point, only Valerie Cherish can prevent her own assassination by Hollywood. I expect she will, but The Comeback being The Comeback, anything could happen. I anticipate a bittersweet ending, but which parts will be bitter and which will be sweet? We know how Seeing Red was received, but what about Jane’s documentary? Valerie may be somebody now, but is it enough to ensure that she’ll never be a nobody again? If Valerie Cherish can win a fictional Emmy, why can’t The Comeback win a real one?
“Valerie Faces The Critics”: A