The 2005 season of HBO's The Comeback combined comedic farce with a deep character study of Valerie Cherish (Lisa Kudrow), a faded fortysomething actress hellbent on propelling herself back to fame, even if it came at a profound personal cost. The Comeback's tone was hilarious, painful, true, and uncomfortable; it was a specific evisceration of Hollywood, and a general examination of how women are treated, slighted, and discarded.
But The Comeback — created by Kudrow and Michael Patrick King — flew too close to the sun and did not achieve broad success, lasting only that one 13-episode season.
That is, until this past spring, when HBO announced that it would revive The Comeback, which had since achieved cult status. The members of that cult felt both joy and terror: Could Kudrow and King achieve something so alchemically delicate again? Maybe it would be better just to leave that one perfect season alone. Even Kudrow had those thoughts. "They loved it so much," she told BuzzFeed News in the fall, referring to The Comeback's ardent fans. "I hope it's as good."
With the finale now having aired, it's safe to say that, yes, the eight-episode comeback season was as good. We saw Valerie go through it: Her once-stable home life with her husband, Mark (Damian Young), and her tethering friendship with her hair stylist, Mickey (Robert Michael Morris), were both thrown into crisis.
Her career thrived after she made the morally compromised choice to play a fictional version of herself, in her nemesis Paulie G.'s distorted, self-serving HBO dramedy, Seeing Red. But that decision had consequences: on her marriage, on Mickey's failing health, and on her friendships, as we saw in the finale when Juna (Malin Akerman) wondered how Valerie could have ever taken part in such a thing. Not only did Valerie take part, she ended up winning an Emmy for her portrayal of Mallory Church, Paulie G.'s gnarled vision of her.
Yet, in the finale's biggest twist of all, Valerie left the ceremony before receiving the award. After learning from Mark that Mickey had collapsed, she found she simply couldn't stay away from him. And in a stylistic rupture, her Emmy departure also marked the first time The Comeback broke from its reality/documentary visuals. Without the accompaniment and pressure of being surrounded by cameras, Valerie's world seemed rich and hopeful. Having been raw as fuck all season — as well as screamingly funny — The Comeback finale brought us back from the brink: Valerie's care for Mickey and reconciliation with Mark provided a lovely, warm ending.
Over breakfast recently, Kudrow discussed (sometimes in Valerie's voice) the nuances of the finale, as well as the season as a whole. And on the pressing question of whether we will get to see The Comeback for a third season — according to HBO, the show drew an average of 1.4 million viewers across its channels and on demand — Kudrow said she has not "heard it officially," but that she and King have gotten the impression that the door is open for more. Soon, she hopes she and King will begin to "talk about what more would look like."
Let's begin at the end. Valerie wins an Emmy and she chooses not to be there to receive it. How did you and Michael decide that was the place you wanted her to end up?
Lisa Kudrow: She's choosing Mickey. She's choosing a person. That, we knew we wanted. Because that, to us, was the biggest surprise — to everyone, probably, including her. There's a human being in there, who, for the first time, is showing some priorities that we can finally be on board with.
It's very emotional. I cried watching it.
LK: Yeah. Me too.
It doesn't seem like Valerie has even a second of regret once she makes the decision to leave and go to the hospital.
LK: I guess it has to do with something I experienced that I was telling Michael about. My son broke his arm, and he needed surgery, and we were in France. And my husband had to be the one at the hospital. And I was outside of my body until the next morning when I could go to the hospital. And once I was just in the room and saw him, I was the happiest. That was, like, the best day of my life. I don't know how to put it.
And it's Mickey. He does mean something to her. She can't not be with him. She didn't intend to leave when she stepped out. But she can't go back in there. She has to be with him. That's all she knows. It's sort of a primal instinct.
In terms of the reconciliation with Mark, it appeared to me that he was just waiting for one sign that she was still the person he has loved.
LK: But this wasn't a test from Mark. Yes, I think he is blown away. I don't think he was looking for a sign, but I think this did surprise him as much as it's surprising to maybe all of us, which I think we see. He's like, I sent you the text, I didn't expect you to come down here. Yeah, why would he? She hasn't given him any indication that she would be that person.
In terms of the way it's shot, her leaving the Emmys is the only time we've seen her not being filmed by a fictional camera. It's actually beautiful — and is so jarring. Are we seeing the real her?
LK: She's not a completely different person, obviously. But what I like about it, just personally, is your real life is a prettier movie than a produced reality — how someone else is going to edit your life. We don't go too deep, Michael and I. But we know it's an impulse, and we know it's right. He directed it, and he said, "You come out, and it's going to be beautiful." I'm like, "Great, yes, it should be beautiful."
Backing up to the beginning of the episode, Valerie's become such a success, but she didn't even realize that people were applauding for her when she gets to Juna's party. I thought that was interesting.
LK: And heartbreaking.
You would think this would be all she's wanted in her whole career?
LK: Yes. And so then, when it does happen, she doesn't know. Why would it be for her? When has it been for her? Her assumption is, Someone important's here.
The scene with Juna is incredibly layered. She seems to see Valerie for who she really is, and she expects things from her. She expresses her hurt feelings very articulately. And Valerie can't—
LK: She still doesn't understand. The hurt feelings, she's trying to dig her way out of it. Well, it's not me. So I couldn't have hurt you, I didn't write it. She's either not getting, or refusing to get, I am personally responsible by accepting the role. And it's an endorsement. Which I think was hinted at, or to me it was clear, in the first episode: You're endorsing this version of things. The people around you who were in the show are saying, Why are you part of this thing? It just hurts. You're standing on set while these lies are being played out about me, and you're just there. To me, Valerie's not a victim, but she completely owns her lack of power. What was I supposed to do? I tried. I can't. And she can't! That's true. Which is why for a lot of people when you do have the option, you avoid those things. When you have the option. And she has the option. She doesn't need the money.
Juna seems to say things to Valerie that Valerie sort of knows. Mickey looks terrible; you need Mark. And she hugs Valerie for so long — Valerie gets incredibly uncomfortable.
LK: Because she's not understanding what's happening to merit all this. I thought I took care of that with all my explanations. And I said I was sorry. I know things with Mark aren't good, and that hurts me. But I thought I covered that. You know? And she's gonna lose it if it doesn't stop.
What was that scene like to film? So many things are going on in your face.
LK: It was long. That was a play to remember. And Malin is incredible. She's just right there. Someone's letting you just listen to them, because they're really talking to you. It's just being there, and reacting to what's happening, and trying to figure out, What's Juna saying? As Valerie, things show. It's fun. I have fun. That stuff is fun to me. That's why when people are like, "Oh, it's so brutal." Is it? I had a great time. Sorry!
The evolution of Laura Silveman's Jane is interesting this season. In the first series, she seems to be an unwilling, or at least conflicted, participant in what Valerie is doing to herself. And in this season, she's really pushing. Why did you decide that would be where Jane would go?
LK: We liked the idea that, as with Paulie G., they've evolved when we meet them — but not really. Everything's OK until you want something, right? Jane's doing this behind the scenes, and because she is who she is, she's really paying attention to the personal stuff and everything that we're seeing. And HBO is also interested in that. Let's do a documentary now. Let's pursue this. So she's back. It's her comeback too.
Chris, in Kellan Lutz's return to the show, being sexually aggressive with Valerie is something I did not see coming.
LK: I know! He's one of those young actors, which we won't explore, who as she says, "Got a mommy complex." We didn't want her to sleep with him. I mean, we talked about it for a minute, and went, "Eh." I don't see that that's her MO anyway. That other people see him flirting with her — that's a much more useful tool than actually sleeping with him.
When she says, "I'm married," I assume she really feels that — still — about Mark.
LK: She really doesn't want to be responsible in that way. And we already found out that he had cheated on her. And she's not going to do that.
The restaurant scene with Mark in the previous episode — in which he doesn't know he's being recorded and mentions he'd had an affair and she'd had an abortion — was brutal.
LK: That was brutal.
OK, you admit that one!
LK: It's brutal. It's just that lapse in judgment, and she has so many of them. Her instinct was, No, you can't shoot this. But she doesn't mind getting talked into it. It doesn't take much. Someone's like, It'll be good, and people can see your love story. Where we're not alike at all is she doesn't play out worst-case scenarios. She thinks she tries to see around corners. But she doesn't. That's how I know she's not Jewish.
Valerie isn't Jewish?
LK: No. In my mind she's not. Does she seem Jewish to you?
LK: I know, how do you answer that question? Right. Sorry, never mind.
Um. I don't know, actually. Let's just switch—
LK: What do you think her DNA admixture is?
It is an interesting thing with religion — mostly Judaism, when it's white actors: You passively may think that the character is what the actor is. But I guess that's not true at all. There are a lot of Jewish actors who don't play Jewish characters ever.
LK: Yeah. Phoebe wasn't. And just going by how many people were utterly shocked when I did Who Do You Think You Are? to find out that I was Jewish. You were shocked? It's never been a secret.
In the visual callback to the pilot when she's practicing her Emmys speech, and opening and closing the refrigerator, I loved the "no room for Mark."
LK: Yeah. But she fixes it. She's also not happy with him. He's not showing up for her, is how she sees it. He's being unreasonable.
In their fight after they leave the restaurant, she lays those things out. Do you see it her way?
LK: Yes and no. I mean, if you're going to set aside absolutely everything else, she has been supportive of him. She does always have him on her mind. Mark's not happy, gotta do something. Especially, like she says, with his daughter, and being there for that — he would just leave the room because he doesn't really know how to deal with her eating disorder. I think she has been there for him. The perfect wife, with client dinners. And for him to just pooh-pooh something that's so important to her: getting acknowledgment from other people. It's kind of hostile, I thought.
And eventually, in the finale, their house literally explodes in shit.
LK: A buildup of shit. Yeah, there were a lot of people you allowed in your house. It's not that subtle: You allowed a lot of shit into your house. You don't pay attention to your home life.
I loved the James Burrows scene, and that he's another one who says to Valerie, "Your marriage is important." Why did you decide he'd say that to her?
LK: He was her go-to. Not that he was willing to be that person ever. But for this guy who doesn't even know you as a couple, it's so obvious to him that he's comfortable saying, "That's great. Hold on to it, hold on to the other stuff too." We don't see her acting like a victim much. This is the one time that she's like, Mark didn't come. Biggest night of my life. Look what happened to me.
She doesn't usually complain.
LK: No, she doesn't. Which is, to me, what makes her tolerable. To me, there are so many components, because I'm her. I don't know how to take you through all of it. It's hard for me to talk about these things. But anyway, let's keep trying.
It's a Q&A.
The prevailing narrative about why people didn't take to The Comeback as much as they should have in 2005 is that was dark and it was uncomfortable. This season is even darker than the first. Was it at all, You thought that was dark and uncomfortable? Here!
LK: No. No. No, no, no. I mean, that wasn't my intention, and Michael never said that. Not at all. This time, this is nine years later. It's a 14-year marriage, not a four-year marriage. And Mickey is nine years older. Back then, he was, like, "Got another melanoma." That's how things go. That's really how things go. OK, let's show reality then. There are bumps. People get sick. Marriages have real problems, not just, Oh, you didn't order me dinner again. You know? Real problems. It's dark. But to me, there are higher stakes.
When we spoke before the season began, you talked about how nerve-racking it was for this to go out in the world: People who loved it, would they love it again? I'm wondering how you've felt the reception has been.
LK: I'm thrilled. It's, like, Phew. I mean, we thought it was good. When we were writing it, we thought, This is right. When we were shooting it, we thought, This is right. Once you're editing it, and you're looking at it: People are going to see it now. Uh oh. I don't know what the mood's going to be, I don't know what's going to happen. But I've been thrilled. I don't like reading negative things.
You have someone who vets them?
LK: Yeah, just don't send it along. I'm not one of those people who's like, "No, no, I want to know what everybody thinks." They are opinions. And I'm grateful for the positive ones. And it is encouragement. And it helps you feel like, Oh good! I'm in agreement with a lot of people. If it were universally, Wow, this was disappointing, I would have to pay attention to that. But the number of people who were never going to get it anyway? I really don't need to know why. Because I don't feel like we need to capture every mind in the world.
I was discussing this topic, specifically in reference to The Comeback with a friend of mine who is a straight, male television critic. I said to him that I feel like with straight white men, it does not occur to them that maybe not everything in the world is for them. Which isn't to say that there aren't plenty of straight white men who love The Comeback, because there are.
LK: There are. More now than there were nine years ago, by the way.
Yes. But when you're a woman or something other than a straight, white man, you actually do get — because you must — that not everything is for you. And that's OK. You're used to it. The Comeback is not more dark or unrelatable than Breaking Bad. But a high school teacher who becomes a crystal meth kingpin? That is unrelatable. And that is dark!
LK: Right. But I — and maybe this is where I'm like Valerie Cherish — I'm seeing that it's out of concern. Like, Take care of a woman a little more. I'm uncomfortable seeing a woman treated so poorly. They're not the ones with the power, it's white men who are. So why does it have to be so hard?
And my answer to that is: Thank you. But it is. And I'm not kidding. I appreciate that sensitivity. But it is. It just is. I'm not an activist. And Michael and I aren't saying, "Something's gotta change!" Because we feel like it will slowly. And slowly is more permanent than abrupt, I think.
Here's what it is: It's almost like we're filing a report in a way. I also, to be fair, I think younger actresses, certain ones, they speak up. You know? If someone in a series comes to them and says, "So, here's the next episode we're doing — and you blow him." "OK, well, hold on: Why? How are you going to shoot that? And I'll tell you what I'm comfortable with, if any of it." There are plenty of women who will have conversations. And I am one of 'em, to be clear. But I think there's another element of who has the power on a set. And not every actor does, of course. So there's that issue. And that's not just women. It's not always gender.
I know, I say too many things at once. Good luck with this "A"!
This interview has been edited and condensed.