How much is Valerie Cherish willing to sacrifice for her comeback? Last week, she sacrificed her dignity. This week, it’s her home, and maybe her marriage, too. Like any other addiction, Valerie’s desperate craving for fame is taking a toll on her personal life, and the more she flirts with the idea of a legitimate return to cultural prominence, the greater the damage she causes. And make no mistake: Valerie is responsible for everything that happens to her.
Yes, Valerie a victim of an industry that isn’t kind to middle-aged women, but she doesn’t have to be a part of that industry, especially when she has a wealthy husband that can support the both of them. She doesn’t need to take a part in a show that paints her in a negative light, although you can see her logic regarding the Seeing Red decision: If there’s going to be a fictionalized version of her on TV, she might as well play the part and have some kind of control over the portrayal. But Valerie isn’t the writer or the director or the set designer. She has no input regarding what Mallory says, what Mallory does, or what kind of ridiculous mirror is hung in Mallory’s bedroom.
There’s logic behind Valerie’s decision to offer her and Mark’s home as a Seeing Red set in “Valerie Saves The Show,” but again, it’s not something she needs to do. She fears that losing the scenes at Mallory’s home will prevent the character from being likeable, but she doesn’t understand that Mallory isn’t supposed to be likeable. These are the types of scenes being filmed at Mallory’s home: Mallory drinking alone; Mallory crying in the tub; Mallory getting scratched by a stray cat. She doesn’t sound like a character to be liked, but a character to bit pitied.
But pity is still better than hatred, and taking away Mallory’s home scenes limits that character in a way that prevents her from being anything more than a one-dimensional villain. And that’s unacceptable to Valerie, who can’t make a distinction between herself and the characters she plays. To make sure Mallory gets her due in the story, Valerie offers up her home for one to two days per episode (for six episodes), driving a major wedge in her marriage when she learns just how intrusive the filming process will be.
Based on Mark’s disgust with the entire Seeing Red project, I find it hard to believe that he would go along with Valerie’s plan. He might be briefly blinded by the prospect of bona fide Hollywood star Seth Rogen filming at his home, but he knows that the show’s filming schedule is extremely erratic. Filming at their house is a huge hassle that Mark accepts a bit too willingly, but it does give the writers the opportunity to show how Seeing Red is taking over Valerie’s life. And it sets up the extremely dark final scene when Valerie and Mark are forced to spend the night at the apartment complex they own as “Strongwood Properties.”
Adding to Mark’s frustration is Valerie’s selfish attitude. She sees his distress when the crew starts modifying their house for filming, but doesn’t do anything to assuage his worries because she has to rush off to her Groundlings class. Everything is about Valerie, and Mark has no say. She takes on a show that will cause their marriage a lot of unneeded stress by ripping open old wounds. She decides to film it all because she’s a narcissist, not caring how constant surveillance psychologically affects others. She offers up her home for filming because it means she’ll have more to do as Mallory, even though it poses a huge problem for her husband. She does this all, and then she leaves him to deal with it so she can go be horrible at improv.
When it comes to uncomfortable viewing experiences, the scenes at Groundlings don’t have the sexual undertones that made last week’s blowjob so distressing, but are still plenty painful to watch. That’s because they combine the awkwardness of Valerie Cherish with the awkwardness of bad improv, which is never fun to experience in any capacity. Thankfully, this is the kind of tension that lends itself more easily to laughs than watching a woman forced into a sexual situation that she’s not comfortable with, putting Valerie in a liberated position and showing how she still manages to fuck that up by over-thinking everything. Kudrow is phenomenal in the Groundlings scenes, probably because she saw plenty of bad improv during her time as an actual Groundlings member, and Valerie manages to look both extremely uncomfortable and overly confident on stage.
The beginning of the Groundlings scene provides an outstanding hall of mirrors moment. The cameraman is filming Jane, who is recording the first Groundlings class taken by a character played by Lisa Kudrow, a real-life Groundlings alumnus, and Valerie is in this class to improve her performance on a dark HBO comedy, the show-within-a-show of Kudrow’s own dark HBO comedy. The most telling thing about the shot is that the camera isn’t on Valerie. You get the impression that the cameraman has been feeling the discomfort that we feel over the course of Valerie’s improv class, and has turned his camera away from Valerie because he can’t keep watching. He decides to chronicle the event through Jane’s tablet, which blurs it and diminishes its impact, but Jane eventually directs his attention where it’s supposed to be.
Beyond showing just how horrible Valerie is at using her imagination and being in the moment on stage, the Groundlings scene is a fascinating look at how this show approaches comedy. After Mickey tells Valerie that the doctors may have found a skin cancer on his body, Valerie can’t stop incorporating cancer into her improv scenes, which gives her teacher the opportunity to remind the students, “Nothing’s off limits, but things like cancer, they’re just really hard and tricky to make funny.” The cancer reveal hits hard after this season’s strong work establishing how much Valerie needs Mickey, but the script finds a way to make cancer funny by showing how Valerie becomes fixated on it at a completely inappropriate time.
You know what else isn’t very funny? Suicide. After being forced out of their home by the Seeing Red filming, Valerie and Mark seek refuge at their apartment complex, and while they argue in their room, another tenant in the complex shoots himself in the head. The sequence fluctuates between drama and comedy as it builds to the suicide reveal: It begins with Mark berating Valerie for their situation and telling her that he’s going to move out until she’s done dealing with “the drug addict,” a serious conversation that ends with a literal bang. But in order to get access to the room where Jane heard the shot, Valerie and Mark have to prove to the complex manager that they are indeed the owners of the property, a humorous conversation that reveals how little involvement the couple has in their real estate. Eventually the woman does open the door to reveal a bloodstain on the wall, to which Mark reacts, “You happy now, Valerie?”
In the case of this suicide, Valerie has no direct responsibility, but Mark places the blame on her. He wouldn’t have to experience the trauma of seeing a dead body if it weren’t for Valerie, and that’s the last straw for him. The conclusion of this episode doesn’t bode well for the future of Valerie and Mark, but it bodes even worse for Paulie G. based on what the cops say regarding the circumstances of the man’s suicide. A drug addict that had sobered up and found a new job, the man fell off the wagon just as his life was looking up, which feels like some fairly on-the-nose foreshadowing regarding the direction of Paulie G.’s story.
But Paulie G. isn’t the only addict on The Comeback. The officers talk about how this situation is what usually happens with recovered addicts: they turn their lives around, then wreck it all and take down everyone with them when the addiction returns. Valerie hasn’t been in the public eye for the last nine years, and at the end of that period, she was still living a comfortable life. Her marriage may have gone through some trouble, but it didn’t fall apart. Now she’s reaching for fame again, and everything is crashing down. So again I ask: How much is Valerie Cherish willing to sacrifice for her comeback? As this season gets darker and darker, I can’t help but wonder if the answer is “everything.”
- A lot of great thinkpieces came out of last week’s episode, including this outstanding analysis by Maureen Ryan that spends a lot of time on Jane and Paulie G.’s roles in Valerie’s story, and Sonia Saraiya’s insightful piece on how the episode dismantles male privilege.
- This episode features the return of Seth Rogen for his last appearance on the series (he only signed on for two episodes), and while he’s not quite as charming as last week, he does give Mark a joint so that’s pretty cool of him.
- I love the shot of Ron frantically trying to get away from Valerie after he breaks the bad news about the budget cut. He doesn’t want to spend any more time talking to her than he has to.
- I didn’t catch any names that Valerie messes up this week, although she doesn’t know the name of the woman who manages their apartment complex, just one awkward part of a very awkward encounter.
- This week’s ending music: “The Tide Is High” by Blondie. Valerie’s drowning, but she’s still holding on.
- Paulie G. doesn’t say anything to Valerie at all this week. He’s clearly not pleased about what happened with Scene 27.
- Ron: “26? This isn’t The Rockford Files.” Mickey: “No it isn’t.”
- “There’s another way that Mallory and I are different: Mallory likes to watch herself during sex.”
- “Ignore the camera, guys! Ignore the cameras.”
- “I’m at your level.”
- “You know me, Red! I’ve had so many skin cancers removed, I count it as major weight loss.”
- “Well, only two reasons to be out of work. Bad economy or cancer. You have cancer?”
- Rick: “I’m baking this cake for me for a change. It’s my birthday!” Valerie: “What sign are you? Cancer.”
- “Actors can be tricky.” Mark’s glare at the camera during this line is perfect.
- “No, not my car. Not my heroin. Not my arm. Not my gun. Yeah, none of it’s mine. I’m actually being operated by a prop guy through a hole in the car, he has his hand up my ass right now.”
- “Wouldn’t be the first time I paid a hot guy to spend a night with me at a hotel.” Valerie is so bad at off-the-cuff remarks.
- “I’m an actress. So. You know. Done a couple CSIs. I get it.”