In the “mockumentary”-style series that had its first and only season nine years ago (just 13 episodes seen from June to September 2005), Kudrow played an aging, former sitcom star who was turning to reality TV in order to restart her stalled career. Kudrow was then 41.
Cut to the present day and “The Comeback” is making a comeback. In fact, it’s making one of the most unusual (if not unprecedented) returns in the annals of TV, coming back for a second season after being out of production for nearly a decade. The present-day version of “The Comeback” premieres on HBO on Sunday, Nov. 9, kicking off a planned run of eight episodes.
I watched the first episode yesterday and I am in awe of Kudrow, who’s now 51. Her performance, as a fictional TV actress named Valerie Cherish, is so needy, so heartbreaking and, seemingly, so spot-on accurate, that it is at times not even easy to watch. I had the same reaction to watching her in the role nine years ago and felt then, as now, that the performance was so strong that it left all other female comedy performances that year in the proverbial dust.
Her performance was far from universally acclaimed, however. Many critics were as turned off by the nervous, hand-wringing way Kudrow was playing the character as I was mesmerized by every aspect of her characterization. Despite the criticism and HBO’s decision not to renew the show for Season Two back then, Kudrow was nevertheless nominated for an Emmy, which she should have won unanimously.
Instead, the winner that year was Julia Louis-Dreyfus for the drab CBS sitcom called “The New Adventures of Old Christine.” The other nominees that year -- none of whom could hold a candle to Kudrow -- were Jane Kaczmarek for “Malcolm in the Middle,” Debra Messing for “Will and Grace” and Stockard Channing in “Out of Practice.” (You’re not losing your memory -- I don’t remember “Out of Practice” either, and neither does anyone else, with the possible exception of Stockard Channing.)
In 2005, reality TV was hitting its stride but it had not yet matured into the colossus it is today, representing hundreds of hours of programming spanning dozens of styles and genres -- Alaska crab fishermen, storage-locker auctions, doomsday survivalists, the Kardashians and all the rest.
In the premiere episode of the new “Comeback,” Valerie Cherish even acknowledges that the world of reality TV in which she first sought to make her mark in 2005 -- in a fictional reality series called “The Comeback” -- has changed and become more acceptable today. That’s why she’s trying again, she explains, to come back with “The Comeback” -- in the hopes that this new one will be more acceptable too.
In deciding to bring the show back, HBO is probably hoping for the same result -- that audiences today might be more accepting of Kudrow’s Cherish because, for among other reasons, television viewers seem so much more willing to embrace concepts, characters and TV shows that they might not have embraced nine years ago.
Among the concepts they came to accept: The single-camera “mockumentary” style for TV comedies, thanks chiefly to “The Office,” which premiered in March 2005, just a few months before “The Comeback.” By September of that year, “The Comeback” was being forced into its nine-year hiatus, while “The Office” was beginning a critically acclaimed run that would continue until May 2013.
You might say “The Office” made the TV world safe for mockumentary comedy, and created an environment that’s apparently safe for Lisa Kudrow and Valerie Cherish to attempt a comeback in “The Comeback.”