Sunday, November 23, 2014

Blanche Dubois in a Tracksuit

The first two episodes of the second season of The Comeback have been pure bliss: humiliating, hilarious, poignant, sad...  Basically the new shows are a direct extension of what made The Comeback's 2005 season so incredibly satisfying.  Almost every review I've read of both seasons, however, focuses solely on the show-business satire:  Valerie Cherish trapped in a world that does not want her, the superficial, vanity-drenched universe of reality TV and/or Hollywood in general.  But I think the setting and situation are just red herrings, glossy reasons to make a show.  Valerie Cherish is one of those characters that not only satirizes and parodies excess (in Valerie's case:  vanity, star-hunger, ambition beyond ability, etc), but also somehow has connective tissue to a reality and pathos way beyond satire.  She's full-fledged, made from parts that seem totally valid and emotionally relevant.  She's not a cartoon.  Her behavior carries with it moments of extreme illumination on what it means to be a human being in a pretty nasty world that often crushes spirits while also remaining totally blank-faced.  I know this sounds totally overblown and very Valerie-Cherish-ish, but I kind of liken her to Blanche Dubois or Willie Loman, two beautifully flawed extremely irritating but spiritually poignant symbols of humanity trying to maintain grace and sanity in a universe not built for them, or not even aware of their wants and needs.

In short, Lisa Kudrow does a drag here that pierces through the kitsch and shame, until finally at the end of the day Valerie is one of us. 

The new season's first two episodes illustrates this point a little more succinctly than a lot of the first season's episodes.  In one gorgeously penultimate moment, Valerie tries to sell herself to HBO so she can portray a horrible version of her real self on a semi-autobiographical HBO-deluxe "dramedy" about the rotten little sitcom she was co-starring in almost ten years ago (one of The Comeback's kickiest conceits is the use of meta upon meta upon meta narrative intaglios).  The show is titled Seeing Red, and Paulie G, her arch nemesis from the first season of The Comeback, and the creator of that rotten little sitcom, Room and Bored, has written it.  She stumbles upon this fact, and at first tries to maintain "dignity," as Valerie likes to call it, only to twitch and squirm until she winds up in front of a bunch of hipster-icy HBO execs asking her to "cold-read" a scene for them in which her character, Mallory Church, barks out a pissed-off monolog about how she's sick and tired of being the "old lady," the "joke," the "unfuckable one."  It's a truly Blanche-Dubois-meets-Carol-Burnett-as-Eunice moment, and yet Blanche wins out in the end.  Kudrow plays the meta-meta seriously, to the bone.  That room of execs is blown away, as are we, because we know what she is saying is so true, at least in this context and more-than-likely in many more contexts, and we're on Valerie's side not because of gender inequality of anything, but just because her tragedy is given to us without restraint or audience-pleasing satirical obsequiousness.  Valerie's anger, while it will never come out in the real world, is given a moment to geyser in that HBO conference room, and in the steam heat we feel every frustration she's ever felt.  And we somehow know her frustration is ours.

Valerie is a clown, but her clownishness is not alien to the species.  In fact it is elemental, a facet of human consciousness and behavior that we all like to pretend we don't share.  She is embarrassingly self-serving, manipulative, pathetic, status-conscious, overwhelmed by her desire to be what she can't be, and yet all of those traits don't alienate her from us.  They bring her to us somehow.

Valerie's relationship to another clown, her hairdresser Mickey Deane (played with soul and verve and a beautiful exhaustion by Robert Michael Morris), gives us another way to witness her self-involvement and also her hilarious co-dependency.  Mickey dotes on her, protects her, actually establishes a zone of tranquility for her, and in turn Valerie simultaneously thanks/ignores/berates/belittles/compliments him all in one fell swoop.  Their dance together dramatizes one of those great comedic couplings in which timing and chemistry and a total dedication to (as Valerie would say) "honoring the wonderful material" written for them.  They move through their days together completely unaware of the tragedy of their adventures, and yet also secure inside a plastic bubble of their own making.  They take care of each other's need for self-importance and applaud the smallest of one another's triumphs.  It's a joy to witness, even while you wince.