How “The Comeback” came back

Insert comeback joke.
Insert comeback joke.
Image: John Johnson/HBO
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LOS ANGELES— Nine years after it was canceled, The Comeback is—yes—coming back.

It’s not unusual for a show canceled by one network to find life at another one. Just last week, Yahoo Screen saved Community after NBC pulled the plug, while Netflix gave The Killing one final season (debuting Aug 1) when AMC canceled it last year. And, most famously, Netflix revived Arrested Development last year, seven years after Fox had ended its run.

But HBO has trumped them all, by bringing back The Comeback—the cult comedy starring Lisa Kudrow that it canceled in 2005 after a single season—as a six-episode limited series this November. The series, about washed-up sitcom star Valerie Cherish (Kudrow) who has landed a supporting role on a generic new sitcom (Room and Bored) while simultaneously filming for a reality series about her comeback, debuted to a mixed reception, but in hindsight, was clearly a show before its time. The Comeback employed the same mockumentary style, complete with agonizingly awkward pauses, that was later used on hit shows like The OfficeModern Family and Parks and Recreation. The show’s small but loyal fanbase only grew after its cancellation, with both Time and Entertainment Weekly later naming it among the 10 best shows of the decade.

While Kudrow and her co-creator Michael Patrick King had talked casually over the years about what Valerie might be up to now, “it was too much of an emotional risk” to think seriously about the idea, Kudrow said at the Television Critics Association summer press tour. That changed when HBO called them in, after two network staffers persuaded HBO programming president Michael Lombardo to consider reviving it. “It just started with a kernel of a creative idea,” said Lombardo. “We started imagining it, and we called Michael Patrick King and Lisa. They came in for a meeting and it was so exciting, funny and it just happened.”

“HBO is in a different place than it was nine years ago,” added HBO executive vice president Casey Bloys. “We felt like it was the right time to look at reality television 10 years later.” The reality genre also has changed considerably since 2005, thanks to shows like Jersey Shore and Bravo’s Real Housewives franchise. “What we did nine years ago was so tame compared to what’s actually going on,” said Kudrow, who recalled that in 2005 they had dismissed the idea of bringing a camera into Valerie’s therapy sessions as too outlandish. Now, however, that is a routine element of shows like Real Housewives, as is the notion of well-off women agreeing to humiliate themselves in front of reality cameras.

Because the original concept is no longer novel, the revived Comeback will center around Valerie getting cast on an HBO dramedy series. Now, instead of being trailed by a reality show crew, she’s in front of a behind-the-scenes crew for the new show. Despite the change, “the DNA is the same,” said King. Most of the show’s supporting characters will also return, including those played by Malin Akerman and Kellan Lutz, whose careers have skyrocketed since it first aired.

In an effort to expand its audience beyond the current fan base, HBO has put The Comeback’s first season on HBO Go, and the season two premiere will indoctrinate new viewers by catching up with Valerie over the past nine years. But King also promised what he called a “a crack cocaine opening” that will appeal to diehard fans: “You get to see Valerie in a lot of different versions of where she’s been for nine years.”

While HBO has only committed to this six-episode season, the execs left the door open for more. “Could it happen? I guess,” said Bloys. “If it does fantastic and everybody loves it, we’ll see.” And if not—well, don’t rule out yet another Comeback comeback several years down the line.