In 2005, long enough ago that it was shot and broadcast in a 4:3 aspect ratio, Lisa Kudrow co-created and starred in an HBO series called “The Comeback.” In it, she played Valerie Cherish, a formerly successful sitcom actress returning to television both in a new situation comedy and a linked reality show about her returning to television in a new situation comedy.
This week, “The Comeback,” which lasted only one 13-episode season — nodded at in its time, but increasingly and appropriately appreciated since — makes a comeback of its own. To pile meta- upon meta-fiction, Valerie, out of the limelight again, is creating her own pilot for a reality-show comeback when she is cast to play a character based on herself in an HBO series written by the writer of “Room and Bored,” the fictional sitcom in the first season of “The Comeback.”
In some ways, it feels like the first season was made just to set up the new one. As before, the series is presented as the raw footage of a reality show in process. But the current episodes have more weight and intensity; they come off a shade darker and yet more sympathetic to its cast of co-dependent lost souls.
The fact that the returning cast — which also includes Robert Michael Morris as Valerie’s hairdresser and one-man entourage Mickey; Damian Young as her husband Mark; Lance Barber as Paulie G., the writer of the sitcom in the first “Comeback” and the HBO show in the second; Dan Bucatinsky as her publicist; and Laura Silverman as the producer she drags back to reality television — is nearly a decade older has no little bit to do with it. Time is the enemy of celebrity, and it marches on.
“You’re one of the few actresses who still looks real,” a network executive tells Valerie. “That’s why we hired you.”
At 51, Kudrow is herself nine years less desirable in low Hollywood terms than she already was at the time of the first season of “The Comeback.” If she has not exactly lacked for work, like most actors not actually superstars, she has ridden some nags in the years since “Friends” went permanently into reruns.
Kudrow is not Valerie — she has made herself this show to star in, with co-creator Michael Patrick King (“Sex and the City”), as well as the divine “Web Therapy,” which has graduated from the Web to Showtime. (“You’ve got to write your own stuff,” Seth Rogen, playing himself, tells Valerie.) But she knows her struggle, clearly.
Still, if “The Comeback” were only out to mock the aspirations of aging actors or even the pretensions and betrayals of reality television, now such a common target for comedy, there would be no show worth watching. The story about the man who won’t quit his job cleaning up after the elephants in the circus (“What, and leave show business?”) is an old one, elaborately remade many times over.
But there are real characters here, whose sadness is not irredeemable. It is just that their vision is fogged. There is an addiction theme that runs explicitly and metaphorically through the series: This is a show about the seductive power of being allowed to do the thing you most want to do, and about all the things you don’t want to do which you’ll do in order to get to it.
It’s not enough to call Valerie shallow or vain or self-centered when she is so clearly at sea. Kudrow plays her, brilliantly, as if she is reassembling herself at every new thought or encounter. She is never at rest.
And though she can be dumb in a TV way — her character is played for laughs, after all, and made to deliver jokes — she is not so much stupid as gratified by the wrong things. Blind even to her better self, she doesn’t know when she’s doing well. And the straws she grasps at aren’t even the right straws.
Yet she isn’t alone in this. Many of these characters are in Hollywood not merely to chase a dream but as a kind of last or only recourse. They can see no other way out. They have nowhere else to go.
When: 10 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)