The Comeback: something more like life


I saw Lisa Kudrow in The Comeback last night, giving a performance wonderfully more skillful than anything she ever attempted in Friends. 

Pam, my wife, spotted something I didn’t. Kudrow hits the woody vocal notes of a Katharine Hepburn as if to place a “do not cross” barrier before her.  This made more poignant what I could see: the desperate good humor Kudrow beams from within the compound so to signal, apparently, the willingness to capitulate before any attack is broached.  Passive aggression in a new key.

It is a cringingly good performance. Where Kudrow on Friends was ditzy and loveable, here she is almost too painful to watch.  There is in fact only one way to watch this program:  horrified fascination. Her “comeback” must end badly.  I haven’t felt this uncomfortable since I was watching The Office

Friends was a joke manufactory.  Characterization, plots, sets, actors, all were subordinated to the need to deliver funny every 4.5 seconds or so.  (The program was a program, as it were.) But The Comeback is closer to drama than comedy.  When Kudrow must choose between ha-ha funny and the cringingly accurate, she is knows what to do. She has engaged in hours of meticulous observation. She has done her anthropology. And now she delivers it without remorse, and sometimes without the funny.  (This is why the show will fail to produce more than HBO numbers, despite its star. It is more interested in the comedian’s comedy, than mainstream comedy. See my post below for more on this argument.)

Television that makes you cringe? Who would have guessed that the great “wasteland” of television would ever have this effect?  And it got me thinking about all those CSI moments when we are obliged to look at the most ghoulish of scenes: bodies that are damaged or decomposed to the point that someone in the room is moved to shout “hey, they can’t show that on TV, can they?”

Law and Order used take the standard approach. Each show would begin with someone lying prostrate, body and clothes askew, blood modestly in evidence, as if the camera were saying (assume voice of Denis Leary), “listen, this person has met with an act of violence and now they’re dead.  Ok? Let’s move on.”  Not any more. Now the camera pours over cadavers like a ghoul. And everyone at my house puts their hands over their eyes, and waits for Molly, the cat, to give the all clear signal. 

So what’s happening here? Is this a trend?  Is culture shifting? Johnson argues convincingly that TV has become more intellectual demanding, with more themes and a new complexity.  Could it be that TV is becoming more emotionally difficult, too?  Now that the simple plot lines are disappearing, so are the easy laughs and the cheap sympathies.  Now we have to pay for our humor and our drama and engage with something more like life. 


Johnson, Steven. 2005. Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter.  New York: Riverhead.

McCracken, Grant. 2005.  Anthropologist saves Hollywood.   May 11, 2005.  here.

8 thoughts on “The Comeback: something more like life

  1. Tom Guarriello

    You’ve smacked the fastener cleanly again, Grant! The Johnson “cognitive complexity” standard for things being “good for you” misses entirely the emotional impact of the pop culture items he tracks. In the old days, the behaviorists used to argue that violent TV taught violence; the psychoanalysts, that it cathexed impulses, kind of bleeding off the pressure, if you will. Nowadays, we map multiple story lines and sound the all clear.

  2. Ed Batista

    Anyone who saw Lisa Kudrow in Don Roos’ “The Opposite of Sex” (1998) knows that she’s always been capable of so much more than “Friends” ever asked of her. (The same could be said of Jennifer Aniston–see Miguel Arteta’s “The Good Girl” (2002).)

    I agree that the mainstream culture industry is more willing to embrace complexity and nuance than it once was, but I also see that as a reflection of changing market dynamics. Big audiences are a lot smaller than they used to be, so shows and movies are targeted at ever-smaller niches. Because they don’t have to appeal across such a broad demographic gulf, these entertainments can reflect a particular niche’s distinct preferences, be it for emotional subtlety or graphic violence.

    And let’s not overstate the case–five of the top 13 shows for the last Nielsen period (June 6-12) were episodes of “Two and a Half Men,” and that’s a pretty old-school sitcom.

  3. Grant

    Tom, Thanks! (what’s a fastener?) Best, Grant

    Ed, I agree, this improvement comes from competition, not good intentions. A little competition does what an arts council cannot? Until a couple of weeks ago I steered clear of 2.5 men, but then I had a look and found it surprisingly witty. Yes, it plays out an Oscar and Felix, men as dopes, stereotype that I find obnoxious. But it was written with pace. Thanks. Grant

  4. Matt

    There’s a lot to be said also for the freedom that HBO’s business model implies. The broadcast networks have to lease their viewers’ eyeballs to advertisers, so by and large they’ve tried to avoid ever giving offense or making anybody uncomfortable, for fear that somebody might remember that the TV has an “off” button. HBO doesn’t have advertisers. They don’t care about your eyeballs. As long as there’s _something_ on their channel that you like enough to keep subscribing, they keep getting paid, even if you dislike everything else they air. Which means that they can take a lot more risks.

    And since an overwhelmingly disproportionate number of those risks have paid off, they’ve been dragging the networks (kicking and screaming, most of the time) into a less risk-averse posture as well.

  5. Grant

    Matt, thanks for that very useful reminder of the economic conditions of their creativity! Best, Grant

  6. T.R.

    This is by far the worst show on HBO. It is ridiculously stupid and boring and Lisa Kudrow’s voice is annoying as hell. I’d rather watch a real reality show, even Bobby Brown, than a tv show made into a fake reality show.

Comments are closed.