If you blinked between June 5 and September 4, 2005, you might have missed one of the funniest TV shows to ever grace premium cable. Though it aired in a primo time slot right after Entourage, HBO’s meta-reality series The Comeback never garnered the numbers to save itself from cancellation doom, and so after 13 riotous episodes, the first season of the Lisa Kudrow comedy also became its last.
“In the beginning, my joke was that The Comeback fans were like the early Christians — they were small groups hidden in caves who knew there was a message but they were afraid to get it out,” says Michael Patrick King (of Sex and the City fame), who co-created the series with the show’s star Kudrow, in her first major TV role since Friends ended in 2004.
Kudrow starred as Valerie Cherish, a washed-up actress who allowed her quest for fame to be filmed for a reality show called The Comeback. Valerie’s reluctant acceptance of the invasive cameras in her home spelled out her sheer desperation to be back in the spotlight again (her network show I’m It! was a three-year hit before it, too, was canceled). Throughout the season, viewers began to see the horribly depressing but somehow hilarious struggle of a woman who faced Hollywood through a gritted smile as she desperately tried to stave off the inevitability that she was becoming a joke (she earns pseudo-redemption when she’s cast on a sitcom about four sexy singles… as frumpy supporting cast member Aunt Sassy).
“It was such a unique show, and remember there wasn’t a Real Housewife anywhere,” King tells EW. “There was no one who looked like Valerie — people were just sort of eating bugs on Survivor or, like, trapped in the jungle on I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here. Everything that’s really unique is ahead of its time. Anything that you can’t identify as something already runs the risk of being misunderstood because it’s never been seen yet. Even our weird camerawork — it was before The Office made that common.”
After the show’s eighth episode, which marked a turning point for Valerie, King was convinced that people were “starting to understand” the show — but HBO didn’t bite. The show ended its run with little fanfare in September 2005, and shortly afterward, the show’s creative team found themselves busy again in Hollywood. Members of The Comeback’s writing staff went on to create shows like The Office and Nurse Jackie; Lisa Kudrow found new series success with her online-turned-Showtime series Web Therapy; and King busied himself with the Sex and the City movies and CBS’ 2 Broke Girls.
But as is the case with plenty of canceled shows nowadays, The Comeback appeared to find its footing with fans long after it went off the air (the entire thing is now up on HBO Go, if you want to expose yourself to 13 episodes of brilliance). So will Valerie Cherish ever live to see the limelight of 2014? Maybe.
King explains, “Lisa and I actually have had a couple of lunches lately where we’ve been missing Valerie and wondering where she’d be. That’s just a creative exploration Lisa and I are doing. We care so much about Valerie and the work that we did that, in hindsight, felt so edgy. Lisa and I have been amusing ourselves, and maybe somebody else might be amused in the future.”
Both Kudrow and King know what the second season would be — “Valerie getting what she wanted and what fresh hell that would be,” laughs King — and it seems apparent that in 2014’s selfie-happy world populated by Real Housewives and viral sensations, Valerie would be just as desperate for the spotlight as ever.
Interestingly enough, The Comeback’s format of raw footage from Valerie’s reality show would lend itself well to today’s binge-watching experiences. “It’s web series, it’s Netflix, it’s FX, it’s network, it’s not-network, it’s everywhere,” says King. “All bets are off now. The Comeback works best when it’s uninterrupted because you get the conceit that it’s all raw footage. Ideally The Comeback comeback would have to be at a place where you could experience that.”