JOHN P JOHNSON / HBO
By James Poniewozik
November 6, 2014

My review of the comeback of HBO’s The Comeback is in the new print issue of TIME. I wish I could share it with you here, because I like the review and I like the show, but I also like having a paid job, and the column is for subscribers only. (Thirty bucks gets you a year’s worth of TIME! Cheaper than HBO!)

What I particularly like about the new season is that it de-emphasizes what I thought was worst about the original–the shooting-fish-in-an-aquarium reality-TV satire–and builds on what was best: Lisa Kudrow’s microcalibrated performance, and its cringe-making yet sympathetic depiction of an actress, now around 50, trying to make it in an industry that stamps a sell-by date on women:

I watched the five episodes HBO sent around the time that Renée Zellweger, 45, tripped the Internet chatter alarm over her “unrecognizable” face, which was not long after the summer’s doxing of stolen nude photos of young actresses, including Jennifer Lawrence, 24. Valerie may be grasping and desperate, but she’s no dummy: she knows how actresses enter this cattle chute as hotties and exit as jokes.

One thing that’s compelling about Valerie is that she’s aware of this dynamic but has no illusions about her ability to change it. Early in the season, when she scores a career coup–she’s cast in an HBO series about the series made in the first season of The Comeback–she’s flabbergasted to discover that it starts shooting almost immediately. She won’t have time to “prepare,” she protests–where “prepare” means to set up and recover from plastic surgery.

The way our culture deals with its Valerie Cherishes is to make fun of them for being “phony”–for putting on false faces figuratively or, in the case of plastic surgery, literally. But that’s the easiest kind of sanctimony, to define actresses’ worth by their hotness and then blame and mock them for it when they accept the terms. Stay young forever! But never be fake!

The beauty of The Comeback is that it can be painfully funny dealing with Valerie, and yet it’s never unsympathetic–it’s conscious of why she is the way she is, and that’s the much tougher and ultimately more rewarding laugh. If I like the new season even better than the original so far, one reason may simply be that Valerie is nine years older, and by the simple harsh math of Hollywood, the stakes are that much more real.

And coming so soon after the mass Zellweger freakout, it feels all the more relevant. It’s easy to feel superior to celebrities willing to do anything to maintain their image, whether it’s landing a reality TV show or going under the knife. What Kudrow and The Comeback never forget is: there are a whole lot of us with our fingerprints on that scalpel.

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