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THE TINY SCREEN: “The Comeback” Offers Rare Substance:

When “Friends” came to an end, the only actress of the bunch who was complaining was Lisa Kudrow, who spoke publicly about how much she’d miss the regular paycheck, a surprisingly honest declaration in an atmosphere in which actors are supposed to act like they don’t give a damn about where their next paycheck is coming from. Of course, they must. But to look desperate, even for a second, signals the end for most.

As it happens, there isn’t a single performer from “Friends” who hasn’t gone on to work in film and television. Matt LeBlanc went back to television on “Joey,” whose ultimate fate is as yet undetermined, while the rest of them are making movies, with Jennifer Aniston poised to become the biggest film star of the bunch. But Lisa Kudrow, arguably the funniest female on “Friends,” has decided to return to television with “The Comeback.”

“The Comeback” is surprisingly dark, given that Kudrow is one of the funniest actresses working today. Her best work, however, wasn’t as the bubble-headed Phoebe on “Friends,” but rather the neurotic characters she took on in film, like “The Opposite of Sex” and “Hanging Up.” Kudrow has displayed unexpected range throughout her career and her latest incarnation may be her most brilliant – Valerie Cherish, former sitcom star.

“The Comeback” follows the life of Cherish, whose salad days are behind her and now has a shot at reviving her career on a cheesy sitcom called “Room and Bored.” We follow Valerie’s life through a camera that is supposed to capture Valerie’s life, warts and all, but Valerie seems intent upon putting only her most positive face forward, so she keeps calling time-outs and directing the action as she goes along. What we see is the unedited version, and ironically, this is where humanity’s truth eventually reveals itself – not through the reality camera lens but through art, or fiction.

What Cherish experiences, and we experience through her eyes, is one indignity after another – some of her own making (she bathes in denial, is driven by an enormous ego and gets on everyone’s nerves) and some by those she comes in contact with, namely the people behind the sitcom – the writers, the producers, and anyone who doesn’t give a hoot who Valerie is or used to be once upon time.

Watching “The Comeback” is a painful experience but an ultimately funny, twisted one. You have to like that sort of thing, however, because the temptation here is to hate Valerie so much you want to see her fail. And how can a show that invokes hatred thrive in today’s climate? Probably not very easily; it will be a shocker if “The Comeback” lasts very long.

The saving grace is that the people Valerie must work with are ten times more horrible than she is. The writers are portrayed as heartless know-nothings who deliver un-funny, soft-porn disguised as comedy to a salivating audience. Who would have thought the villains on any show would be the writers? But they are the ones who control Valerie’s fate. At first she thinks she’s going to be the star of the sitcom, but once on set she realizes she isn’t the star at all but a peripheral side-character known as Aunt Sassy, serving the purpose of commenting on all the sleazy goings-on of the scantily-clad stars of the series (all of them under 25).

She doesn’t complain about becoming Aunt Sassy, and she doesn’t complain when they make her wear a jumpsuit while the rest of the cast run around in bikinis. And she doesn’t complain when her gift basket doesn’t include a spa certificate. There is the sense, though, that when Valerie finally does explode, it will be like Mount St. Helens.

To that end, we root for Valerie. We root for her because the alternative is settling on the disturbing idea that in life there are no second acts and that there is only room for the beautiful and the very young on television. Kudrow is living proof that the opposite is true.

This Week’s

Notable TV

Thursday, June 16

Dancing at the Blue Iguana (**), stripping with Daryl Hannah, 8 p.m., IFC.

Twelve Monkeys (***), 8 p.m., SCI FI.

Pay it Forward (*), notable for being a complete flop, 8:30 p.m.. TNT.

Shore Things, our fascination with the beach, 9 p.m., KCET.

Friday, June 17

In a Lonely Place (****), 7:30 p.m., TCM.

The Next Best Thing (*), Madonna acting badly, 7:30 p.m., WE.

Jackie Brown (***), 8 p.m., IFC.

The Wedding Singer (**), 8 p.m., FOX.

Saturday, June 18

Lilo and Stitch (****), 8 p.m., ABC.

The Bone Collector (**), with the lady of the moment, Angelina Jolie, 8:30 p.m., NBC.

Apocalypse Now (****), 9 p.m., HISTORY.

Independent Lens, 9 p.m., KCET.

Sunday, June 19

Sexy Beast (***), brilliant Ben Kingsley performance, 8 p.m., IFC.

Inside the Actors Studio: Cast of Everybody Loves Raymond, 10 p.m., BRAVO.

Twelve Mile Road (**), with Tom Selleck, 9 p.m., CBS.

As Good as it Gets (***1/2), 10 p.m., TBS.

Monday, June 20

Casablanca (****), a kiss is still a kiss, 7:30 p.m., WE.

Bladerunner (****), 8 p.m., IFC.

Dance in America: Swan Lake With American Ballet Theatre, 9 p.m., KCET.

Gaslight (****), 9 p.m., TCM.

Tuesday, June 21

AFI 100 Years, 100 Movies, 8 p.m., CBS.

Birthday Girl (***), 8 p.m., IFC.

Frontline: Private Warriors, 9 p.m., KCET.

I Want to be a Hilton, premieres, 9 p.m., NBC.

Wednesday, June 22

Field of Dreams (***), 7:30 p.m., WE.

Fried Green Tomatoes (***), 7:30 p.m., TCM.

American Masters, Quincy Jones: In the Pocket, 8 p.m., KCET.

The Glass Menagerie (***), with Jane Wyman, 9 p.m., FMC.

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