Under the circumstances, the notion of having one new and one returning series about show-biz stars be the centerpiece of HBO's Sunday-night schedule sounds ridiculous and death-wishful. But, as if to prove again that even the weariest, dreariest topics can be freshened up, The Comeback, starring Lisa Kudrow, and Entourage, starring Adrian Grenier, both sparkle and glow with brilliance and warmth.
A happy reminder that Kudrow was easily the best performer on NBC's facile Friends, Comeback premiered on HBO Sunday earlier this month. Entourage, a sardonic saga about a novice actor (Grenier) and his three protective pals, returns for a second season still eminently watchable, its characters more substantial and endearing but still fumblingly funny.
Comeback -- not just a show within a show but two shows within a show -- might be okay with someone less emphatically fabulous in Kudrow's part, but thanks to Kudrow (who created the show with Michael Patrick King), it truly soars. This is TV's most poignant half-hour comedy in years, a masterfully modulated combination of savvy satire and tender, even tearful, travails. As the title more than just suggests, it's the account of an actress' attempt to reclaim expired fame, to make a big enough splash that the mass audience will think she never really went away.
Kudrow plays Valerie Cherish, former star of I'm It, a frothy comedy that was a freak hit years earlier. Now, an insistent defensive smile fixed firmly on her face, Cherish is attempting to twinkle her way back into America's heart -- not quite realizing that "Aunt Sassy," her role on the new series Room and Bored is insultingly incidental; the spotlight really shines on two vapid but sexy young couples forever forgetting their see-through clothes.
To elevate the series another notch, Kudrow's cherishable Cherish is also starring in her own reality show, The Comeback, which aims to document her return to television and give viewers an inside view of the way it all works. That means Cherish arrives for every meeting and appointment with a clankety camera crew at her heels, or toes, thus annoying the hell out of associates.
Kudrow's smile of sweet defiance is genuinely affecting, and you're rooting for her from Scene One, even if her dreams and the realm in which she lives are hideously shallow. Kudrow makes sure that every zinger is properly zung and, just as importantly, that every bittersweet detail rings true. You dread the thought of her having her feelings hurt; her shield of denial might be penetrated at any moment.
The Comeback is a very rare thing: a comedy that can break your heart.
Entourage is, of course, more flippant and superficial. For one thing, all the main characters are young men, four pals from back East who have formed a kind of unarmed phalanx to protect their most prized member, Grenier as Vince, a promising young actor hoping to make not just big bucks but gigantic ones.
Kevin Connolly, one of the most amiable surprises in the cast, plays his close friend Eric who becomes his manager. Kevin Dillon is typecast as Johnny, brother of a big star (Matt Dillon in real life, Vince in the series); he has a painfully hilarious time making a fool of himself. And Jerry Ferrara plays Turtle, a goofball who is strictly in it for the women, the 70-inch Sony TVs, and the 70-inch women, if he can find any.
In addition, dominating every scene in which he appears, Jeremy Piven does a magnificently ferocious job as Ari, Vince's agent and one of the slickest operators in a town full of frauds and phonies. If fast-talking were an Olympic event, Ari would have gold medals coming out of his -- er, nose.
Entourage is amusing, playful, and rewardingly waspish, but the show that makes the bigger impression and helps to banish the aridity from which HBO has suffered recently is Kudrow's. People who were wondering if she'd make a comeback will discover that she's done more than that; she's made The Comeback, a comedy that aims very high and, sometimes, strikes very deep. n
Tom Shales is a writer with the Washington Post Writers Group.