Tube Tied: The Comeback and the Radical Notion that Women are Human

Michelle Dean
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One of the weird things about writing about television these days is that very few people watch it "live" anymore, which is to say follow it from week to week while it airs. So if you haven't already seen it, allow me to suggest that you Netflix a 2005 HBO series called The Comeback. This was Lisa Kudrow's first post-Friends foray, and it only lasted a year—apparently HBO would rather forget that it existed altogether as it isn't even listed on their website.

The storyline of the series was very simple: Valerie Cherish (Kudrow) had one successful sitcom role in the 1990s, and is now, some years later trying to stage a comeback with a linked sitcom and reality show. The sitcom, called "Room and Bored," pairs Valerie with a cast of nubile twentysomethings whose older landlord and aunt she plays, including a young ingenue named Juna Millken (Malin Akerman), who Valerie immediately tries to mentor.

The "real" show, the one we watch, is a tad meta: it is presented as an extended version of the footage being taped for the reality show. This draws out a fragmented performance from Kudrow, who is usually playing a Valerie aware that she's performing Valerie for the reality show (someone's making some noise about performativity in my ear), but occasionally she slips, forgets what she's doing. And the Valerie that comes through in those moments is less smiley, less calculating—more desperate.

It's a funny thing, because although this show isn't an overtly political one—to the extent it's ever described as having an agenda, it's identified as being aimed against reality television itself—it is, in large part, about what it is to be a woman who has outlived whatever meager measure of value society is prepared to attribute to her. What it means to be an ornament of some kind that has, in the eyes even of your peers, aged rather past your expiry date. And the sensitivity of the treatment of that subject is actually kind of remarkable, and particularly so from a feminist standpoint.

Take, for example, Valerie's relationship with Juna, which, had it followed the standard cultural and media narrative about intrafeminine interpersonal relationships, should have been a flat-out catfight. There should have been hair-pulling and earring-removal. It's true that Valerie often uses Juna's connections and success to her own advantage. But Valerie seems to feel more sadness than anger about the attention Juna gets, the kind she can't herself obtain. It's more like wistfulness than anything else.

Valerie also has, in her relationship with her co-showrunner Paulie G (Lance Barber), one of the more honest portrayals of how powerful men seek to intimidate women they view as challenging them. For whatever reason, Paulie G hates Valerie from the get-go. He not only rejects her repeated, if awkward, attempts at friendship, he mocks her, both to her face and behind her back. In one particularly memorable episode, when Valerie goes to bring the writing staff cookies for a late night session, she walks in on Paulie G making fun of her by way of playacting having sex with her. No one is particularly apologetic about the incident, not even the other, more mensch-y showrunner. Valerie eventually gets her revenge—I won't reveal what it is—but it's after an avalanche of humiliation from that direction, which she bears with the cheery grin we're all supposed to wear when encountering horrible misogynists in the workplace, because if we don't, we're bitches, and he's only fighting fire with fire.

I say all of this because I imagine that even in the small audience it had, there were probably a significant amount of people who thought Valerie was a horrible, irredeemable status climber, and that interpretation has its roots in the show, too. Sometimes, as I mentioned, she is using these people as much as they are using her. But I guess what I admire about The Comeback is that it does not use Valerie's penchant for strategy as an excuse to condemn her. It reminds me of something Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote, yesterday, on his blog:

I spend a lot of time here bemoaning writing about black people. I do not bemoan its "negativity." I do not wish it to show us "in a more positive light." I would not have all our images modeled on Soul Food. I would have us depicted in all our rancid splendor--boastful and marvelous, rhythmic and self-interested, dumb, clear, hateful, and, on occasion, brave.

I often feel the same way about the depiction of women in popular culture. I don't demand that it never show faults or flaws. I only demand that it consider us human beings. This, I think, The Comeback does particularly well. Go and rent it.

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1 Comment Has Been Posted

Love The Comeback

I'm so glad you wrote about this show! I watched it when it was on (and I actually had cable including HBO), and always really liked it. I thought it was funny and poignant and generally all-around good for all the reasons you mention.

One thing that has always stuck with me is when Valerie mispronounces Mary J. Blige's last name as Bilge. Since that time I've always said it as "Bilge" in my head -- not because I think her music is bad, but just because I think it's kind of hilarious.

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