The Price Of Stardom: ‘The Comeback’ // “Valerie Gets What She Really Wants”

valerie-cherish-wins-emmy-lisa-kudrow“It’s HBO. Not that many people are gonna see it.”

But what does Valerie Cherish really want?

The Comeback‘s Season Two finale answers that question once and for all. “Valerie Gets What She Really Wants” is all about the price of fame, and whether or not Valerie is willing to pay that price when fame is available to her. It begins with Valerie showing up to a hot Hollywood party thrown by Juna Millken, her former co-star who is now a mega-star but still retains the same sweetness — so unlikely in a beautiful blonde starlet. Her sincerity is proven as Juna displays great concern both for poor ailing Mickey as well as Valerie’s troubled marriage, warning Valerie that she isn’t seeing clearly at this moment in time. It’s the first of many mirrors held up to Season One, when it was Valerie mentoring Juna on how to cope with fame (even though Juna was already more famous than Valerie). Juna seems to have maintained a level head despite her stardom — thanks to Val’s counsel, perhaps? Now, it’s Valerie who needs a few lessons from the people who knew her way back when, starting with Juna Millken.

Valerie Cherish is having a moment: nominated for an Emmy, acclaimed for her work on Seeing Red, and actually recognized by people (some, not all). Here, Val must confront her apparent new catchphrase, “old woman’s pussy,” which she clearly isn’t as keen on as “I don’t need to see that!” Now when she walks into a hot Hollywood party, everyone claps for her. But she also has to deal with the price of all that success, which includes apologizing for Juna’s hurt feelings over how she was portrayed in Seeing Red. Of course Valerie didn’t write the thing, but now that she’s reaping the benefits of the show being a hit, it looks like an endorsement of Paulie G’s version of how things went down. After years of talking up her forgotten role on I’m It, Valerie Cherish really is it. Who’d have guessed?malin-akerman-the-comeback-finale-juna-millkenJuna’s party also reunites Val with Chris MacNess, who like Juna has become a major movie star since slumming it on Room And Bored. Chris is a lot more excited to see Val than we might think a hunky action hero type would be, and Jane is equally excited (because it’s a great get for her documentary, though Chris’ masculine charms are clearly wasted on her). Chris pulls Val into the bathroom for some privacy (plus cameras) and then puts the moves on her in a major way at Val’s doorstep. It’s the kind of shenanigans Aunt Sassy would never have dreamed of.

It seems Chris has harbored a crush on Valerie since Room And Bored, which is surprising but not totally unlikely, and the harder he tries to get into Valerie’s bedroom in this episode, the more we buy that he really wants it. It could be because he’s a movie star, and he’s not used to women saying no, and maybe he’s bored with the picture-taking bimbo types who normally throw themselves at him. Maybe Val’s maternal behavior on Room And Bored really did get him going all along. Regardless, a night of passion with Valerie Cherish would almost certainly be just another notch in the MacNess bedpost, and would certainly do nothing to salvage Val’s marriage. This is probably the most surprising development to emerge from the Season One revivals, and I have to say, it’s kind of awesome. kellan-lutz-the-comeback-chris-macnessSure, it plays a little bit more like fantasy wish fulfillment than the hard-edged reality we usually get from The Comeback, but also: lots of movie stars are fucked up. It makes a weird kind of sense that a guy like Chris MacNess might find himself at the top of the world and suddenly start jerking off to Aunt Sassy’s track suit. Stranger kinks have happened. And while a part of me really did want to see what would happen if Chris went in, a larger part of me was squirming, hoping this wasn’t some weird Carrie moment where the hot guy hits on the nerdy girl only to humiliate her in the end, and also realizing that Valerie sexing it up with Chris MacNess would basically have been the final nail in the coffin for Valerie’s character assassination. Instead, Valerie is flattered and somewhat tempted, but also dismisses the handsome, horny heartthrob without much deliberation: “Movie star with a mommy complex. Next!”

Next, The Comeback makes a callback to the pilot episode as Valerie practices her Emmy speech while snacking in the kitchen, reminiscent of the obsessive practice of her signature “I don’t need to see that!” line. As in that episode, Valerie also ignores some water-related warnings from Esperanza that then have greater repercussions — in this case, an explosion of sewage from her garage. It’s all a result of Valerie’s decision to let HBO shoot part of Seeing Red in her own house, which was also the major factor in Mark’s departure. Now Valerie’s success has literally created a shitstorm in her domestic situation.brad-goreski-shirtless-underwear-the-comeback-dan-bucatinsky-lisa-kudrowEverything is going wrong on what might be the biggest night of Val’s life. Mickey has a cancer-related nosebleed and is unable to attend, Brad Goreski face-plants in feces in front of Entertainment Tonight, Val is dateless because Mark still won’t answer her calls, and it looks like rain. Valerie meets Sean Hayes, who will present the Best Supporting Actress category, and then James Burrows gives her some tough love just as he always did back on Room And Bored, explaining that her marriage is more important than a trophy. That may sound obvious, but it’s news to Valerie Cherish.

Then, at last, Valerie is all set to enjoy her big night, when a text message from Mark changes everything: Mickey is in the hospital.

Billy and Jane are both adamant that Valerie set the bad news aside and enjoy the moment, but it doesn’t take Val long to decide what she needs to do.

She leaves her cameras behind.lisa-kudrow-the-comeback-finaleThen The Comeback breaks with the format it has utilized since day one, in the pilot way back in 2005 — we’ve always seen the raw footage that will later be manipulated by Jane, “the network,” HBO, or whoever else gets their hands on it. The Comeback suddenly becomes very cinematic as Valerie dashes to the hospital in the rain (thanks to Uber!), ruining her Emmy dress on the way. (I couldn’t help but be reminded of both Carrie Bradshaw and Buffy Summers, who also wore fancy dresses in dire moments during season finales of their respective shows.)

Fortunately, Mickey is fine, and better yet: his tumor is shrinking. Mark arrives and sees that Valerie has chosen her personal life over her fleeting stardom, allowing him to sweep any former grievances under the rug and return to her. The trio watches the Emmys in Mickey’s hospital room, celebrating Val’s win. Valerie has what she’s always wanted — the highest accolades a TV actress can get. But more importantly, she has what she really needs — her best friend and her husband.

And that’s the end.the-comeback-cinematicThe Comeback‘s final episode of Season Two is bittersweet, because it is quite likely the final episode ever. It gives Valerie Cherish a happy ending that will be hard to come back from (though Michael Patrick King did it with relative success when he revived Sex And The City for the big screen), and now the series has broken form in a way that feels permanent. Valerie walked away from her cameras, and it would be off-putting to go right back to that raw footage format after the way this episode ends.

“Valerie Gets What She Really Wants” takes its time, letting scenes play out longer than they really need to. It dabbles in nostalgia for many of our favorite characters and recreates beloved moments from Season One. In other words, it feels as much like a series finale as it possibly could, wrapping up most (but not all) loose ends and providing an honest-to-god happy ending, something I didn’t necessarily expect from a show as biting as this one. This season of The Comeback got quite dark at times, dragging Valerie Cherish (and its audience) through the sludge, but ultimately chose not to leave us there. Whereas the Season One finale was both cheery and cynical, there’s no such blend here. “Valerie Gets What She Really Wants” is a logical end for the televised journey of Valerie Cherish, which makes me suspect that it will remain as such. It’s not impossible to bring The Comeback back for a Season Three, but it’s not a natural fit, either. This story is essentially over.mickey-hospital-the-comeback-finaleSo, as a series finale, “Valerie Gets What She Really Wants” held a few surprises for me. First and foremost, Paulie G’s near-absence from this episode — he almost accepts Valerie’s Emmy for her, which is a brilliant slice of comedy that says so much about Seeing Red. Because of course Paulie G thinks he should take credit for Valerie’s Emmy, just like he thinks she was the villain behind the scenes of Room And Bored. Seeing Paulie G so easily dismissed and discarded is a great “fuck you” to his character, but certainly not what I anticipated given previous epic showdowns between these two. This season seemed to be building toward some sort of relapse or meltdown as Paulie’s shortcomings as a writer and director clashed with Valerie’s newfound success as an actress.

It is perhaps one of this episode’s savviest commentaries on the industry — as much as Paulie G has been a monster to Valerie, no one else knows who he is. Even with Seth Rogen playing a thinly-veiled version of him, it is always ultimately the actors who get the brunt of the stardom from a hit series. Paulie G is just a blip on the radar in the minds of most television viewers, while pictures of Valerie Cherish will be in magazines. Can we assume that Paulie G will spend the rest of his days toiling in relative obscurity? Sure. (Somewhat less surprising: Paulie G’s Seeing Red doppelganger, Seth Rogen, is also a no-show here.)mark-l-young-shirtless-the-comeback-finale-kellan-lutzAnother loose thread is Jane’s documentary on Valerie, which was meant to culminate at the Emmys. Sure, maybe the whole point is that Val doesn’t care about that anymore, but it seemed like Jane was cooking up something pretty potent with The Assassination Of Valerie Cherish, and I still want to know what it is. Was Jane going to bat for Val, trying to depict her in a favorable light after throwing her to the wolves a decade ago? Was it meant to be Jane’s redemption? Was Jane’s feminist statement about the way women are treated in TV going to meet the same acclaim as her documentary? Or were Jane’s manipulative ways rearing their ugly little heads again, and would The Assassination Of Valerie Cherish again misconstrue the truth about a struggling TV actress who just wants everybody to like her? Jane was, at best, Val’s frenemy, constantly pushing her to make career-beneficial but self-destructive decisions. It feels appropriate that Val would leave Jane behind, but what’s next?

As a fan of Valerie Cherish, I can’t be too upset at seeing her triumph in this finale. After all she’s been through, she’s earned it. Last week’s “Valerie Faces The Critics” brought the character to her lowest point, sabotaging her marriage and invading Mickey’s privacy to get better footage for her documentary. Valerie was really just the puppet, with Jane’s hand up her ass telling Val what to do and not taking no for an answer. In contrast, this episode is determined to make Valerie as likable as possible. It’s the Redemption of Valerie Cherish, everybody! The cost of stardom ends up being too high for Valerie Cherish this time around, and she ultimately decides not to pay. I didn’t want to see Val heartbroken and alone, coming back from Mickey’s funeral to an empty house and crying onto her Emmy. But up to this point, The Comeback has been so merciless about the cruelties of the television industry, and I’m not sure that this happy-go-lucky finale doesn’t undo some of that acerbic commentary by suggesting it’s so easy to just walk away.

Valerie Cherish has grown as a character — learned her lesson, done the right thing, and all that jazz. Valerie got what she really wants. Good for her. But what about us? kella-lutz-chris-macness-the-comeback-recap-finale“Valerie Gets What She Really Wants” is, technically, a happy ending, though so many characters who didn’t fare so well are left in the lurch. (Poor Tom! Poor Gigi!) Do we want Valerie Cherish to grow up, or did we want her to remain a fame-hungry, oblivious narcissist? We clamored for The Comeback to come back once, because we sensed that Valerie had more degradation and embarrassment ahead of her. She’d learned a lesson, but not that much. She was still Valerie Cherish. Now, she’s an Emmy winner who walked away from a career high to cheer up her best friend and save her marriage. That’s a nice ending, but it doesn’t hit the same ironic note that Season One’s finale did. Maybe it’s good that The Comeback didn’t go back to that well again… or maybe it’s a cop-out.

When Breaking Bad ended last year, it gave us a trio of final episodes that satisfied its fans in different ways. Those who wanted a tidy, reasonably upbeat ending got one in “Felina,” and those who wanted Walter to suffer in lonely, miserable isolation for his sins saw that in “Granite State.” Those of us who wanted a lot of fucked up shit to go down preferred the jaw-dropping chaos in “Ozymandias,” as I did. “Valerie Faces The Critics” was the “Ozymandias” of The Comeback, “assassinating” Valerie’s character as both Mickey and Mark seemed poised to exit her life for good. It was about as dark and upsetting as a TV comedy like this could be and still bounce back from the next week, and bounce back it did.

“Valerie Gets What She Really Wants” is the “Felina.” It is a satisfying finale, but only because I was already satisfied before it came along. Everything else was just the cherry on top of that cake. Both seasons of The Comeback made for spectacular television — Season One winning as a vicious comedy, and Season Two satisfying on a deeper, more dramatic and thoughtful level. I’d be hard-pressed to think of a single show where two consecutive seasons felt so different from each other, but still felt like pieces of a whole. (Though the nine-year gap probably has a lot to do with that.)valerie-cherish-red-carpet-comeback-finale“Valerie Gets What She Really Wants” is a fantastic episode of television and a worthy series finale, and while I might have preferred a little more of that jagged edge The Comeback does so well, I also loved every minute of the softer, cuddly version of The Comeback, which literally ends with smiles and holding hands. Only a show that had cut so deep could get away with this kind of sappy ending and not come off feeling trite. With everything Valerie Cherish was put through to get to this point, she fucking earned it. I may admire her choices in this episode — I’m glad she saved her marriage, I’m glad she stuck by Mickey’s side in what might have been the end — I also really wanted to see her step onto that stage and hold up that gold trophy and yell, “Suck it, Paulie G!” Or whatever version of that would have happened. I think we all did.

And that’s the point. Valerie Cherish wanted that moment more than anything, until she realized that moment would be just a moment, and she had the whole rest of her life to live. We care so deeply about Valerie at this point that we are equally invested in seeing her win, though “Valerie Gets What She Really Wants” surprises us by letting her win by not winning — or at least, not being there to celebrate her big win. She’s not even sad about it. Valerie’s not such a vain actress after all.valerie-cherish-red-carpet-emmys

Perhaps the real irony in the otherwise saccharine-sweet “Valerie Gets What She Really Wants” is a meta-irony. Valerie is now an Emmy winner for a not-terribly-great HBO series, while Lisa Kudrow is Emmy-free as far as The Comeback goes. Season Two of the The Comeback is one of the best seasons of a TV comedy I’ve ever seen, yet it will almost certainly go unrecognized because so few have been watching. (This episode gets in a nice dig about that.) It is probably the reason Michael Patrick King and Lisa Kudrow decided to wrap things up so neatly, in a way that feels like a complete ending even if we never see Valerie, Mickey, Mark, Jane, Paulie, Juna, Chris, or even Esperanza again. I am not certain that the show won’t be back for a third season, but I wouldn’t bet on it. (In another nine years? Perhaps.)

Like most aging comediennes, Valerie Cherish was lucky enough to get one comeback, let alone two. And so were we. In the likely event that this is really, truly the end of the road for Cherish and company, I will say my fond farewells now — and thanks for the hilarious, heartbreaking, awkward-as-hell, button-pushing, spot-on memories.

Goodbye, Valerie.

“Valerie Gets What She Really Wants”: A mickey-mark-valerie-the-comeback-finale(Find reviews and recaps for the rest of the season here.) 

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