In 2014, the assertion that reality TV isn’t real is less a theory than a statement of fact. Sure, it can’t always be proven, but like evolution, the vast majority of educated Americans understand it to be true. We’ve come to accept bending the truth as an intrinsic part of the genre: Fights are rehearsed, participants are coached, and the villains are victims of the dreaded “bitch edit.” Reality television is ultimately a performance.
No one understands that better than The Comeback’s Valerie Cherish, who — were she not fictional — might be the greatest reality TV personality of all time. As it stands, she’s simply one of the greatest television characters. Embodied with impressive depth by Lisa Kudrow on the short-lived 2005 HBO series, Valerie is always playing to the cameras. When The Comeback begins, it’s been 10 years since Valerie made her mark as the star of the sitcom I’m It. The series tracks her return to television as Aunt Sassy, a thin caricature on the dreadful sitcom Room and Bored and as herself on a simultaneous reality series designed to propel her back to stardom. Valerie is an actor so defined by her fame that performing in front of an audience is the only reality she knows.
But as is the case with 2014’s actors turned reality stars, Lindsay Lohan and Tori Spelling, the more Valerie performs, the more we see through the act. As these actors put on a show, their true vulnerabilities are unmasked. It’s the closest reality TV has ever gotten to reality.
Of course, that’s not to say these actors have the same perspectives when it comes to how they choose to represent themselves. Valerie would be horrified by the uncomfortable candor on display on OWN’s Lindsay, Oprah’s somewhat botched attempt at reintroducing the world to a sober Lohan, and Lifetime’s True Tori, an awkwardly intimate look at the fraught marriage of Spelling and Dean McDermott after McDermott’s affair. Valerie downplays her own frustrations and disappointments, like getting shoved into the background of a publicity photo featuring her younger, hotter cast mates, while her modern contemporaries cry directly into the camera. It’s not that the tears aren’t real — it’s that, like Valerie, Lohan and Spelling seem to process their emotions by way of public reception.
What unifies these actors with Valerie is that their reality shows and The Comeback, which deliberately parodies their existence, are all carefully constructed to present an image of a human being who exists beyond her fame. To Lohan, that means putting the camera on herself as she breaks down on the floor of her apartment. To Spelling, it’s asking her kids to leave the room because she’s crying too hard to speak. And to Valerie, it’s about being “normal” — saying out loud that she doesn’t mind her young co-stars leaving her out of dinner, expressing her excitement over getting the cover of a yoga magazine, and generally avoiding diva-like behavior, or doing her best to give off that impression.
But the harder these actors try, the more true reality slips through. Lohan, like Valerie, is very concerned about what the cameras are filming and makes constant demands for narrative control. What she doesn’t realize is that we see her trying to manipulate the story, and those attempts are more telling than anything else on camera. In the same way, Valerie spends so much effort putting forth the image that she’s not bothered that her frustration is readily apparent. Long before she snaps and punches Paulie G, the writer of Valerie’s insipid fictional sitcom Room and Bored who torments her incessantly throughout the series, she’s seething with hatred. It’s never more obvious than when she’s trying to laugh it off in her confessionals.
Because The Comeback is scripted and because it presents the “raw footage” of Valerie’s reality series and not the final edit, it plays out as an exaggerated version of the genre with dramatic shifts in tone. Perhaps that’s why critics and audiences were so perplexed when it first aired. But looking back, The Comeback feels incredibly prescient. Even if Valerie is over-the-top in her self-perpetuating delusions, she’s not all that far removed from the Lohans and the Spellings of this world. On The Comeback, she is a sympathetic character not because of the image of stability and togetherness that she’s trying to put forth, but because of how spectacularly she fails.
Valerie is most lovable when she’s least convincing: When the Aunt Sassy-centric episode of Room and Bored gets cut, she pretends to brush off the slight, but it’s Valerie’s least believable performance. As on True Tori, there are moments that can best be called bad acting, in which the subject tries so hard to be “on” that she flounders. She simply can’t sell it. Throughout The Comeback, we learn that Valerie is deeply concerned with her legacy, that she bases much of her self-worth on her fans, and that she is pathologically afraid of being left out. This all runs contrary to what she’s saying, but it’s there for everyone to see. In the same way, Lohan demonstrates how unreliable she is by questioning why no one will hire her on Lindsay, and Spelling laments her life in the spotlight while inviting cameras into her home for True Tori.
The paradox of these women is that they’re both more self-aware than most, obsessively guarding their images, while also completely lacking self-awareness, never realizing how much they’re actually revealing. In the finale of Lindsay, Lohan talks about watching the first episode of the series and wanting to help that girl — as a viewer, she sees how fucked up Lindsay Lohan is, despite the endless protestations that she’s doing just fine. Likewise, Valerie only realizes how she comes across on camera when she watches the premiere of the show-within-a-show The Comeback. Yes, it’s edited unfairly — her treatment of Paulie G, in particular, is taken wildly out of context — but watching herself is the first time Val realizes how poorly she comes across.
For The Comeback’s DVD set, Kudrow does commentary on the episode “Valerie Triumphs at the Upfronts” as her character. It’s a brilliant conceit, executed perfectly, and it represents Valerie’s final attempts to take control of the story. She finally understands that there are moments in which she looks stung or petrified or fed up with her husband, all of which she credits to editing and camera tricks. (A close-up of a human face will register pain where there was none, apparently.) And, of course, the more she protests, the more obvious her true feelings are. She sharply underlines her humiliation by loudly denying it.
When it comes to Lindsay and True Tori, we can continue to question the veracity of what we’ve seen: Did Lohan really have a miscarriage? Did McDermott actually cheat on Spelling? But the facts matter less than the figures at their center — these are not reality shows so much as character studies. The Comeback has the advantage of being clear fiction, layered with purpose to create a character who reveals herself by holding back. Underneath it all, there’s a truth that shows Val to be relatably vulnerable — she’s sincere despite her best efforts to the contrary. That’s what makes her likable, but it also places her among the best-crafted television characters of all time: She captures our obsessive need to control public perception, while also demonstrating our fundamental inability to do so. If there’s one thing Valerie Cherish has taught us, it’s that there’s nothing more genuine than straddling the line between real and fake.