Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Candide Camera

Last night we watched all eight episodes of the second season of The Comeback in a row.  It was worth it.  The last couple episodes, prior to the finale this past Sunday, felt to me as if Valerie had jumped the shark, into a territory close to a John Cassavetes movie spliced with a very special episode of Facts of Life.  The parking-lot meltdown between Valerie and Marky Mark went on way too long and brought up issues that didn't seem dramatically and thematically earned.  Also Mickey's illness was becoming a little too much of a standing joke, something to tap into when scenes seemed to be going South.  
But then Sunday that beautiful finale happened. 
When Valerie decided to leave the Emmy's to go to Mickey in the hospital, The Comeback transcended its own apparatus, and that necessary break from the reality-camera-crew trope allowed me to mentally revamp what the show is and means and has accomplished.  I mean I've loved Valerie and her big bag of bull-shit since the beginning, but those eight shows in a row last night really seemed to illuminate the fact that Lisa Kudrow has created in Valerie a character that transcends her medium:  Valerie is beyond cool, beyond satire, beyond dramedy, beyond HBO.  She's the female equivalent of Voltaire's Candide.     
Bam.  Chew on that.
Published in 1759, Candide is a picaresque, sardonic novel about a guy named Candide, a naïve, good-hearted young man who through the course of the plot discovers that optimism in the face of horrible tragedy doesn't really work; in fact it makes things a lot worse.  Voltaire's triumphant satirical skills are effusive and hilarious, and yet there's a sadness under-girding the whole enterprise.  We don't really want Candide to lose the part of himself that allows him to stay hopeful, and yet the whole novel's purpose is to critique and complicate "hopefulness" in an effort to get a more actual and verifiable and truthful "truth."  Candide witnesses debauchery, earthquakes, and other horrors, on his way to an education that becomes more about understanding the world (and himself) than about how wonderful the world is. 
Like Candide, Valerie is naïve and good-hearted and kind of stupid, always on the lookout for her own redemption, which for most of the series comes in the form of fame and notoriety.  Her optimism stems from her need to be successful, and she spins every humiliating encounter and failure into a "lesson" or in many cases an outright lie just so she can feel better about her situation, and the world she's living in.  She is steadfast in her belief she is going to make it, to the point that "making it" loses all meaning.  But in the second season of the show, she actually does "make it," and she wins an Emmy for portraying herself as a dragon-mother-monster (as written by Paulie G, her nemesis/catalyst).  Then that win becomes meaningless in the face of tragedy (Mickey rushed to the hospital, as well as Marky Mark leaving her for the Palisades).  She rebukes all that self-indulgent optimism, that false hope of fame/awards/ass-kissing, in order to figure out what life means.  
So all my internal bellyaching about shark-jumping melted in the face of that pivot the show made in the finale, when Valerie says goodbye to Jane and Billy and the whole Emmy Awards audience, and joins the land of the not-real-but-real.  She breaks the fourth wall at that moment, and the show loses its reality-show machinations for the last ten minutes or so.  We see Valerie somehow resplendent even in a soggy evening gown, even in a hospital room with her flamboyantly gay and morally superior hairdresser...  She becomes a real person once she is no longer a real person. She gets her husband and her groove back. 
The satire in The Comeback, like the satire in Candide, is mean-spirited enough to do damage and yet sophisticated enough to heal.  That sensibility is nowhere else in television or movies.  I miss it already.