From Roseanne's ill-fated attempt last summer, to Kirstie Alley and Farrah Fawcett trying this spring, there has been no shortage of programs dealing with older actresses, show biz comeback attempts and the ubiquitous role of reality TV in chronicling how unpleasant things can get. Based on ratings, it is fair to say none has managed to hold the public's interest.
So, why should anyone care about The Comeback, a new HBO series about a 40-year-old actress trying to hang on in the Hollywood jungle of network television a decade past her last successful run in prime time?
How about because it stars Lisa Kudrow and shows her to be a far more subtle and compelling actress than Friends ever allowed? Or, how about because it is written and directed by Michael Patrick King, the executive producer who put much of the edge and heart in Sex and the City during the last few seasons of that landmark show?
Together they offer a poignant, unflinching and funny-wry portrait of a professional woman trying to survive in a business that has little use for folks like her. Her metier is Hollywood, but there are lessons for every aging worker to be learned from her struggle to maintain some bit of dignity -- and remain gainfully employed. This is a series about a multifaceted character, and it works on multiple levels.
Because The Comeback is not a reality series about a real actress trying to get back in the game, but instead a scripted comedy about a fictional actress, it has a capacity for satire that the other series mentioned above didn't. While not its main thrust, The Comeback deftly mocks the booming business of celebrities trying via reality TV to write a second act for their faltering careers -- and, in some cases, out-of-control lives.
(One can't help but think of Being Bobby Brown, a reality series from Bravo about the troubled life of the R&B performer married to Whitney Houston, or Tommy Lee Goes to College, NBC's promised TV diary of that rock 'n' roller's effort to reinvent himself as a college student. Being Bobby Brown premieres June 30, while Tommy Lee arrives in prime time Aug. 16.)
In The Comeback, which she also co-created and co-produces with King, the 41-year-old Kudrow plays Valerie Cherish, famously known as the "It Girl" in the late 1980s and early '90s when she starred in the fictional hit NBC sitcom "I'm It." But that was ages ago by Hollywood standards, and desperate for a comeback, she agrees to let reality TV cameras follow her every move as she auditions for and wins a part on a new network sitcom, "Room and Bored."
The only way she could get the tryout for the sitcom was to agree to star in a reality series for the same network about her return to prime time. (Think Roseanne last summer starring in an ABC reality series about the selling and making of a daytime talk show that was scheduled to air in the fall on the ABC Family Channel.)
In the pilot, when Valerie arrives at the network studio for her audition for "Room and Bored," she meets Marilu Henner (Taxi) and Kim Fields (The Facts of Life) playing themselves.
"Who is so desperate for a comeback that they actually want cameras to follow them around all day?" Fields asks, looking at the producer and crew Valerie has in tow. Valerie smiles bravely and hurries on trying to find a waiting area away from Henner and Fields.
While the satire of reality TV has bite, it is the brave face of Valerie that distinguishes The Comeback. At the taping for the pilot of "Room and Bored," she finds out that the other performers are all much younger than she is and that she does not have a leading role. Her part in the vapid sitcom about a group of men and women sharing a beachfront condo has been rewritten; she is now the matronly Aunt Sassy who lives upstairs. (Think Helen Roper in the 1970s ABC sitcom Three's Company.)
In arguing with the director of the pilot over her one brief line of dialogue, she tries to demand respect by reminding him of her former status in "I'm It." "Well, you know?" he says. "You're not It anymore." (The director is played by Jim Burrows, the most famous and successful sitcom pilot director in television.)
Valerie says nothing as a range of emotions from humiliation to determination passes across her face. One can't help admiring a woman who forces her trembling lips into a smile and presses on determined to accept and succeed in any role that allows her to stay in the game.
The Comeback has its flaws. But this is a moment well beyond the depth of most television comedies. This is the stuff of which plays by David Mamet and Arthur Miller have been writ. This is a sitcom to which some attention should be paid.
When: Tomorrow night at 9:30
In brief: Lisa Kudrow in a new HBO comedy of rare depth.