The Comeback

After her decadelong romp as Phoebe Buffay on "Friends," Kudrow returned to series TV in June with "The Comeback," where she plays a faded sitcom star trying to rekindle her career.

Kudrow is splendid as Valerie Cherish, who, despite her beauty, bucks and reliable marriage, feels perilously insecure. Thanks to Kudrow, Valerie is a restless blend -- self-deluding yet crafty, fragile yet driven to renew her celebrity while being snubbed at every turn.

In short, she is night-and-day from Phoebe, a freewheeling ditz who everybody loved.

But some viewers remain stuck in Kudrow's past while taking her new comedy a little too seriously. For them, she maybe did her job too well portraying Phoebe. And now she imbues Valerie with sufficient authenticity to feed suspicions that somehow "The Comeback" smacks of autobiography.

"Some people aren't sure what to make of it," Kudrow allows.

Halfway through its 13-episode season, "The Comeback" (10:30 p.m. EDT Sundays on HBO, with repeats during the week) warrants a new look from those unsure viewers, to be measured on its own special terms.

And on Valerie's. In the early 1990s she had tasted fame on a cheesy sitcom called "I'm It," then disappeared. Now the 40-ish has-been is still telling herself that, even in an industry ruled by short memories and youth obsession, lightning can strike again. She has set herself up as a lightning rod for the indignities and cruelty of show biz.

She might as well be wearing a "Kick Me" sign. Which is very funny to behold. Also painful.

"The tragedy," says Kudrow, "is that this woman needs something, and has expectations, that cannot be fully realized. And to keep herself in such an unforgiving environment, she goes back and forth between being really strong, and stupid about what her priorities are."

In the spotlight

On a recent episode, Valerie got a major setback. Her comeback bid -- a piece of dreck called "Room and Bored," on which she had already been marginalized to supporting-player status as a character named Aunt Sassy -- was shut down by the network for retooling.

"That's TV for you," Valerie chirps, her forced smile fully flexed -- "if it ain't broke, then break it, and then fix it."

Valerie's solace: She still has her reality show, which was created to track her as she launched her sitcom. At least she still has that spotlight.

Thus does HBO's "The Comeback" examine the mad pursuit of fame. But it is an urge to which Kudrow, however famous, happens to be immune.

Kudrow created "The Comeback" with Michael Patrick King ("Sex and the City") and despite its being packaged as if a rough cut of Valerie's reality show, it in fact is meticulously crafted and scripted throughout.

"It's challenging to get it to look spontaneous," says Kudrow. "That's tricky to do."

On the other hand, capturing the essence of Valerie (who had her first stirrings as a character invented by Kudrow years ago while a member of the Groundlings improv troupe) was "almost the easiest thing I've ever done.




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