Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Comeback Is Back

The Comeback was on HBO in 2005 for one season.  It didn't get picked up for another one sadly.  Starring Lisa Kudrow as a second-rate sitcom star kind of like Shelley Long meshed with Kim Cattrall, Comeback uses reality TV as both its target and inspiration, and in that mix of sarcasm and elation finds a strangely beautiful poignancy.  While Cherish is returning to TV after a long (and definitely not self-imposed hiatus) to co-star in a new sub-par situation comedy called Room and Bored, a reality show about her comeback is being filmed, called The Comeback.  While it sounds a little too smart-alecky and high-concept for its own good, The Comeback never loses its zest for both the humiliation of, and a big-hearted respect for, its star, Ms. Cherish. 

Lisa Kudrow plays Cherish with an intensity and ease that's charming and disquieting, like a Cindy Sherman photograph stirring to life and dropping the high-art Diane-Arbus pretentiousness for some Waiting for Guffman downhome pizazz.  But Kudrow's performance is not solely about skewering the smarm and phoniness of Hollywood, or even about riffing on Guffman's slightly mean-spirited mockery.  Kudrow's Cherish is an exercise in locating the humanity inside of all the decorum and decoration Cherish uses to set herself apart.  In setpiece after setpiece (including hilariously understated bits like having her reality TV show crew follow Cherish to a department store to take back bedsheets, all the way up to the climactic scene in which cupcake-costumed Cherish punches Room and Bored's bullying head-writer right in the gut), Cherish seems confused by, and aware of, a new consciousness blooming inside her.  As she swims through the humiliation she has signed up for, rushing toward regaining her second-rate celebrity status, Cherish also wants to put a stop to the whole runaway-train of it all by continually calling "time out" to the camera-crew following her.  As The Comeback progresses, Cherish seems to be realizing that her whole life has been, and always will be, an exercise in Celebrity Stockholm Syndrome. The punchline is that she never will be able to escape that creepy, slightly masochistic desire for fame.  She will also never be able to get exactly what she wants.  The only saving grace is that at least she has access (albeit of the D-List vareity) to enough fame, photo-ops and chocolate-fountain parties to keep her occupied.

The Comeback's sense of humor harnesses the age-old powers of puke and dog-shit and public embarrassment for its comedic assault, but its use of scatology and scorn is always about creating a space for the Realness beyond Reality TV to reveal its ugly/beautiful grace.  Kudrow captures that queasy interregnum almost every time she's on-camera.  In fact, her Cherish is an artistic triumph, both a paean to the pretty, prissy school-teacher you want to mock but then bring an apple to, and a satire on the limits of the desire for fame and fortune.  Sometimes you can catch Hillary Clinton in Kudrow's gaze, other times Kathy Lee Gifford and every local TV news anchor-woman, or a nosy neighbor lady peeping at your through a slit in her living-room curtains.  The kaleidoscope of Kudrow's satire, however, eventually becomes stained glass.

And good news:  The Comeback is on Sundance Channel now.  Check your local listings.