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Lisa Kudrow shines in “The Comeback”

Upon seeing the DVD, I was blown away by The Comeback, Lisa Kudrow’s short-lived series for HBO. In short, it’s hilarious but more than that, it’s clever. Kudrow plays Valerie Cherish, a faded comedic actress from the late ’80s and early ’90s who has slipped from the limelight and is now trying to claw her way back to fame and popularity.

The show we see comprises ‘raw footage’ taken from the fictional reality show The Comeback, which follows Valerie around on her day-to-day life as she takes a role on a new sitcom, Room and Bored. So really, it’s a show-within-a-show-(within-a-show) format; sounds quite complicated, but it makes sense when you see it. Since it is ‘raw footage,’ it is never as simple as a glossy look at the end product of a reality TV show – there are plenty of camera and “off-camera” asides, with Cherish regularly telling her producer Jane to not use parts of the footage in the final edit.

As such, it is a rather biting satire on reality TV – and an extraordinarily well-judged and perfectly-crafted one. Kudrow knows her stuff from having starred on Friends for a decade, and brings all that insider knowledge to the table in The Comeback. So, we see Valerie desperately trying to garner more lines for herself in the new sitcom Room and Bored, trying to win the popularity of the cast and crew, trying to win magazine covers and shine on the red carpet etc. But the writing and Kudrow’s performance is so strong and multi-layered that Valerie is never one-dimensional, the storylines are not predictable, and there is real heart to the show which is perhaps surprising in a satire like this.

The supporting cast is fantastic, and the entire show is pleasingly realistic and always thoroughly entertaining. It’s not a straightforward comedy by any means – certainly do not expect anything like Friends – but it would be a real shame if you missed something as clever and intricate and finely-detailed as The Comeback (not to mention a truly superb performance from Kudrow throughout.) It’s also a real shame that the show did not really take off on its original run in 2005, perhaps because the reality TV Kudrow was satirising was still so popular at that stage. Six years on, its reputation seems to be growing, rightfully so, and it’s the sort of show that rewards repeated viewing and stands up to that repeated viewing too (for all its cringiness too!)

I would heartily recommend The Comeback for both comedy and TV fans in general; it’s eye-opening on one hand, true, but thoroughly entertaining and engaging with it too. It goes without saying that it’s by far the best project taken on by any of the lead Friends actors since the show, but really it stands far apart from Friends in tone and style – and the fact that Kudrow pulled it off so marvellously is one of the many commendable things about it. Not to be missed.

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The wonders of Twin Peaks

I had never seen “Twin Peaks” until two weeks ago, compelled to purchase the Definitive Gold Box Edition set solely on the strength of customer reviews and the knowledge of its cultural significance. I knew nothing about the plot, beyond the fact that it opens with the murder of a teenage girl and stars Kyle MacLachlan, and had no real idea what to expect (although I am a big fan of David Lynch’s films Blue Velvet (1986) and Mulholland Drive (2001). I was not disappointed. “Twin Peaks” is incredibly addictive; it’s as quirky and mind-bending as some of Lynch’s best film work, but there’s a core of relatable human truth, and it effortlessly fuses the high art and cinematography of film with the fast pace of television.

While the quest to solve the murder of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) is the driving force of the series, there are numerous subplots as well, and such is the wonderful amalgam of thriller, mystery, and soap opera parody that one begins to suspect almost everyone, and wonder how the subplots relate to the bigger storyline. Many ultimately don’t particularly have much to do with the Palmer storyline, but the guessing game is half of the fun. There are far too many memorable scenes and episodes to mention, but the first half of the series (that is, all eight episodes of the first season and the first half of season two) set a high benchmark for television. The episodes are beautiful, funny, scary, and bizarre all at once, and it’s an intoxicating mix. There’s just the right amount of tension, drama, and light relief, and it’s the feel of the show that leaves the lasting impression – the dominant red and wood colouring, the settings (the diner, the log-cabin feel of the Great Northern Hotel, the mill), and of course Angelo Badalamenti’s haunting music that weaves in and out. Each character is developed beautifully, and even the supposedly more minor players have pleasing depth.

Bowing to pressure from the ABC network, Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost reveal the identity of the killer midway through season two and afterwards there is a palpable change of feel; it is as if the air is being let out of a tyre. The remaining episodes are of high quality, and more often than not continue to retain the distinctive “Twin Peaks” feel, but some of the stories – James’ flirtation with a mysterious woman when he leaves Twin Peaks, for one – are closer to real soap opera than the sophisticated soap parody of the first half of the series. It’s to the writers’ credit that the characters were developed enough for them to warrant continued viewing, and certain characters – especially Piper Laurie as Catherine Martell – really shine. The unique “Twin Peaks” of the first season returns in the last few episodes, with the episodes feeling tighter, more creative, and intense. The finale is as bizarre and beautiful as one would hope; it leaves a few threads hanging but makes a suitable finish at the same time.

This box set is wonderfully produced – each episode looks fresh and high quality, and the quality of the remastering is especially evident when you watch the non-remastered Log Lady intros before each episode. (There is a curious scene in one late season two episode however, with Audrey Horne and Windom Earle in the library, which appears not to be remastered and stands out.) The extras are often excellent – an almost two-hour ‘Making Of’ documentary series divided into the making of the pilot, the first season, the second season, and the music, and featuring insightful interview snippets with cast and crew. There’s also a fun bar-set interview with Lynch, MacLachlan, Madchen Amick (Shelly), and crew member John Wentworth, a 20-minute documentary about the “Twin Peaks” fan festival, MacLachlan’s monologue and sketch from a 1990 episode of “Saturday Night Live,” extensive photo galleries (including images of all 76 “Twin Peaks” trading cards!), a collection of promo trailers (and an advert for a “Twin Peaks” t-shirt), and a collection of little audio features where Lucy and Andy among others deliver news from the series (totalling 22 minutes.) The extras all add to the magic of the box set.

I would heartily recommend “Twin Peaks” to anyone who is interested in original, creative television. It’s quirky and offbeat in the most imaginative, beautiful way possible, but also possesses familiar, identifiable human values that are so essential in a recurring television show. It’s incredibly well-drawn and well-realised, and even the second half of season two, which appears to have lost much of the tension and intensity of the first season, is pretty sophisticated and enjoyable. I came into “Twin Peaks” effectively ‘blind,’ took a risk on a quite-expensive-looking box set for a show I had never seen and knew very little about, and it’s a decision I do not regret. Usually once I have watched a TV show I have enjoyed, I will put it aside and resolve to watch it again in a few months, maybe a year. With “Twin Peaks,” I already want to go back to the beginning and watch again, such is its unique, seductive, addictive allure. Twenty years on from its original run, “Twin Peaks” remains a high watermark in television.

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