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'Comeback' trail

Lisa Kudrow and Michael Patrick King hope viewers are ready for their comic, twisted look inside Hollywood.

June 05, 2005|Lynn Smith | Times Staff Writer

DEBUTING tonight on HBO, "The Comeback" might sound like one more behind-the-scenes TV comedy made by insiders for all those outsiders who'd like to feel like insiders. But its creators -- Lisa ("Friends") Kudrow and Michael Patrick ("Sex and the City") King -- insist that the dark comedy about a desperate B-level actress is much more. They call it an expose of the current deteriorating state of network television itself.

Like the shows that brought King and Kudrow fame, their new venture taps into a wider zeitgeist, the pair said during a break from work on the Paramount lot, where they are finishing writing the last two of 13 episodes. "It's a response to what's happening right now. What is there to write about? Well, this," Kudrow said. "What it feels like to me with the networks is panic. It feels like fear and desperation. Their audiences are getting eaten alive by all the different cable channels. They are kind of panicking over 'What are we going to put on to get our audiences?' "

At the same time, King said he hopes to make the show's appeal universal, even if its subject seems rarefied. "I know this is a show about show business, but I want to write for real people as well," he said. "But I don't want to not write about show business, because I think everyone's aware of show business."

The show's premise is this: To land a role on a boilerplate network sitcom, "The Comeback's" star, the fictional Valerie Cherish, played by Kudrow, agrees to subject herself to cameras around the clock for a reality show about her own "comeback." The show within a show within a show is an M.C. Escher print of complications, centered on fear and desperation.

It trickles down from the fictional network's executive suite to the show runners, who can't resist product placement and who change the cast to satisfy what Kudrow called the the "18-to-19" demographic. "[They say] 'We can't have four 30-year-old women, so let's get some teenage girls in bathing suits!' One person [Cherish] has thrown herself into the middle of that most dangerous soup, to feed her endlessly needy ego. And there's no beef under there."

Kudrow and King spiritedly defended their work in progress as something completely different from other current and recent shows about off-screen Hollywood -- HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm," "Entourage" and "Unscripted" as well as Showtime's "Fat Actress" and Bravo's "Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List."

For one thing, "The Comeback" is a satire, they said, and Valerie Cherish is not in on the joke. "Kathy [Griffin] is really savvy and aware that she is spinning the joke to be about her," King said. "Valerie Cherish is not in this to make fun of herself," Kudrow said.

The first 12 episodes are structured so that Valerie continues to be filmed for the reality show without having seen the raw footage. In the finale she finally sees the premiere. "She thinks she's doing a pretty good job of controlling the perception of who she is. I think she'll be blown away by the amount of vulnerability and what's seen through the cracks," King said.

King and Kudrow hope to portray Cherish's situation as similar to that of a star in any profession -- a writer, say, or a director, or even a surgeon, King said. "Anyone who's been close to recognition for what they do has to work really hard in life to get that from themselves once that spotlight turns away from them, which it mostly always does."

Kudrow said reality shows are one reason audiences beyond Hollywood are interested in shows about inside Hollywood. "Reality TV has turned cameras away from the actors onto just about anybody. Now everybody is a celebrity. Everybody's in on the industry. It's not just actors anymore."

People on reality shows, she added, are always shocked when they see how the show was edited to turn them into a hero or a villain.

One challenge is to keep the comedy from sliding into full-blown tragedy. So far, they said, people have reacted with sadness as well as laughter to the pilot and first episode, in which Cherish, trailed by the reality show crew, endures the casting change and travels to the upfronts with the young stars of the sitcom.

"One thing I like about our show is that humiliation is still uncomfortable," Kudrow said. "It's supposed to be uncomfortable."

But King said they are experimenting with pacing and other comic elements to ensure that the show doesn't become too dark. "The only thing that makes it comic is she never had the fame," King said. "She was close to fame, and that's really important. The funny and comic and more tragic thing to me is that she believes she was more famous than she was."

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