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Casting couch more like therapist couch

Times Staff Writer

HBO’s new comedy series “The Comeback” stars Lisa Kudrow as Valerie Cherish, a needy, attention-grabbing former sitcom second banana (she did 97 episodes of something called “I’m It!”) cravenly seeking another go at TV demi-fame.

Ah, so here is Kudrow working through some professional issues, you’re tempted to think, after what had to have been the existentially troubling experience of receiving something like $500,000 an hour for striking the same notes year after year after year on “Friends.”

HBO has become a good place for this kind of creative therapy. It’s what gives the network prestige among the Hollywood writer community while drawing criticism from beyond that small milieu. It’s circumstantial, probably, that the comedy lineup is emerging in this way, and not necessarily a bad turn, but there’s a pitfall these shows can fall into -- the clever joylessness seen in both “The Comeback” at 9:30 p.m. Sunday and “Entourage,” whose second season begins the same night at 9 p.m.

The new season of “Entourage” will continue to explore young movie actor money and fame (a million gets you all the sushi your posse can eat, but not the mansion you had in mind), filling the void left by the recent run of “Unscripted,” an at times moving show that took us deep into the lives of Hollywood’s working-class actor (endless auditions, negligible sushi, no mansion in sight).

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“The Comeback” is another of these, starring Kudrow and executive produced by Michael Patrick King, who shepherded “Sex and the City’s” rise to iconic status. They set their considerable comedic claws and fangs on the network sitcom game, in a show that is executed in the manner of one of Christopher Guest’s mock documentaries. But “The Comeback” lacks the sweetness that Guest manages to convey toward his characters, even as he presents them as unself-aware oddities suffering life’s small humiliations.

They know what they’re doing, Kudrow and King. They are very good at the details of Valerie’s world -- the Zone Diet meals she’s got in the fridge, the soulless, pot-smoking sitcom writers who loathe what her hackiness says in turn about their own lives. But while Guest was in a way pulling for the small-town thespians in “Waiting for Guffman” or the dog-show-obsessed in “Best in Show,” “The Comeback” demonstrates a harder-edged dislike for Valerie Cherish; one of the problems with the show is its rhythm, scene after scene in which the arc goes from Valerie’s self-delusion to barely hanging-in-there ego jolts.

The paradox is that the humiliations are well-drawn, even as the comedy plays as a colder kind of comfort. Thanks to “I’m It!” Valerie Cherish has a People’s Choice, just one, and it means so awfully much to her. So does every crumb and morsel of fame she’s ever received, including her one and only appearance on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.” In her home, a still shot of Valerie on “The Tonight Show” hangs on a wall of fame documenting her years on “I’m It!” “My Leno,” Valerie calls the photo, as if speaking of something she once loaned to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

That moment is enough to signal Cherish’s sad but funny insecurities, except that it then gets overcooked; in “The Tonight Show” still, there’s a monkey on Valerie’s head, and she explains that it pooped on her. “It was a real water-cooler moment,” Valerie says, without irony.

Though the range of the character feels limited, Kudrow is good at staying in Valerie, at conveying all that she fears inside about her age and her image and her career, but which comes out in a too-optimistic birdsong or else completely fake bonhomie. Worse, she actually utters the sentence “I need to know that I am being heard,” when feeling particularly threatened.

This is a character who’s three clicks away from completely unraveling, and Kudrow means to keep her right there, on the edge of her extreme narcissism (it’s a similar, if less winning, balancing act than Ricky Gervais managed in the BBC comedy “The Office”). Determined not to be a footnote on an “E! True Hollywood Story” (although she’d do one, no doubt, gratis), Valerie, when first we see her, is not only about to audition for a new sitcom pilot but she has also allowed a reality TV show crew into her life to chronicle her so-called comeback. Instantly, the relationship between Valerie and Jane (Laura Silverman), the reality crew producer, begins to show signs of fraying, mostly because Valerie doesn’t seem to understand that the cameras are there not so much to chronicle her triumphant return to television as record every side moment of her life, as when she tries to duck behind a door to argue with her husband, Mark (Damian Young), about problems with the water pressure in the downstairs powder room.

Her comeback will take the form of “Room and Bored,” a deliberately inane sitcom about four sexy singles sharing an apartment, one of whom is supposed to be Valerie, until the network sees the pilot and realizes she’s not credible (a malleable term in the sitcom world) opposite her three young costars, whereupon she is re-cast as Aunt Sassy, the wacky aunt upstairs.

“Well, I got it,” Valerie tells the reality show camera after being cast in the show, whereupon Jane, off-camera, tells her to do it again, only bigger.

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Valerie: “This is supposed to be reality.”

Jane: “I just think that your reality could be more excited.”

Valerie: “Jane, you and I have to talk. Can you turn the cameras off please?”

Jane: “No.”

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It sounds like HAL telling Dave he won’t shut himself down in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” These are the funniest moments in the show, the way “The Comeback” portrays the crew following Valerie around as an intrusive force whose very gaze she desperately wants but can neither understand nor control.

Also leavening things occasionally is Robert Michael Morris, as Valerie’s longtime “I’m It!” hairdresser, Mickey, whose task is to keep Valerie’s long red hair tuned to the early ‘90s.

But mostly the show returns again and again to the ritual humiliation of its main character. We see Valerie late at night, through the camera perched on her kitchen ceiling, rehearsing a joke for “Room and Bored” as she moves progressively further and further through a chocolate cake. “Note to self: After a long day at work, I don’t need to see that!” is the dreadful line she keeps trying, in different shades, all of which come out predictably lame. There’s an awful truth in that sequence, a truth that can’t mask the scene’s punitive tone.

Like “The Comeback” itself, it doesn’t feel like a comment on reality TV, it feels like a comment on Valerie Cherish -- the comedy equivalent of low-hanging fruit.

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