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.