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No laughing matters
Lisa Kudrow’s The Comeback, Kyra Sedgwick as The Closer, and Lost’s season finale

Lisa Kudrow’s new HBO series The Comeback (Sundays at 9:30 p.m. on HBO beginning June 5) is billed as a comedy, but it’s the most depressing show you’re likely to see all year. If former Friends star Kudrow was determined to put ditsy Phoebe to rest, she has succeeded, and then some.

Created by Kudrow and Sex and the City producer/director Michael Patrick King (they also wrote the first two episodes), The Comeback is a scripted mock-reality series that aims to shed satirical light on the brutal truths of life for the over-40 actress in Hollywood. This might sound reminiscent of Kirstie Alley’s series Fat Actress, but the dark tone of The Comeback is closer to the British version of The Office. Like Ricky Gervais’s David Brent, Kudrow’s washed-up TV star Valerie Cherish is half-blind to how people really feel about her. Swaddled in self-importance but growing dimly aware of a chill in the air, Valerie keeps looking into the camera and offering nervous smiles and face-saving explanations of why the work offers aren’t pouring in and why even her own husband is unimpressed with her B-list fame. Once the star of the hit 1980s sit-com I’m It!, Valerie has resorted to reality TV to rekindle her career. She’s appearing in a show called The Comeback that follows her as she makes her comeback as the star of a network sit-com called Room and Bored. (The show-within-a-show-within-a-show construction is clunky and, in the first episode, confusing.)

Well, "star" is not exactly the word for Valerie’s role on Room and Bored, but she’s too proud to realize what’s going on. In a spoof of the tortured process by which shows get on the air, Valerie signs on for a sit-com about four thirtysomething career women who share an apartment, but on the first day of shooting the pilot, she finds that the network has made a few changes. Her character now shares an apartment with three nubile twentysomethings, so the age difference between Valerie and her co-stars is painfully noticeable. On the second day of shooting, the network makes another change, and the news is delivered to Valerie with barely disguised contempt by the show’s obnoxious white-boy-homie head writers. The apartment is now shared by four horny twentysomethings — two women, two men — and Valerie is to play the landlady, "Aunt Sassy," who lives upstairs and disapproves of the kids’ sexual antics. In short, she’s become Stanley Roper on Three’s Company. The point is underscored in a later scene where the cast of Room and Bored pose for publicity photos. The hot young things are up front in skimpy outfits; Valerie is far, far back, wearing Aunt Sassy’s only costume, a matronly track suit.

Kudrow is valiant in her role; she hits beautiful notes of foolishness, desperation, and heartbreak as she’s ignored or humiliated by everyone around her. But the two episodes I saw were just not funny enough; they started out on a down and stayed there, displaying none of The Office’s agile dance between dark and light. There’s also a fatal flaw in the show’s central contention that TV has no use for actresses who’ve passed their perceived sell-by date. Desperate Housewives, anyone? The Comeback isn’t satire, it’s just peevishness.

THERE’S A SCENE in The Comeback in which an anxious Valerie is caught by a hidden overhead camera in her kitchen rehearsing her lines late into the night while polishing off an entire chocolate cake. The secret-junk-food-binge motif also appears in the new TNT cop drama The Closer, which stars Kyra Sedgwick as the driven, embattled head of an almost all-male homicide unit of the LAPD. These images of ambitious women pigging out under pressure may seem like a TV cliché by now. But an image can feel cliché’d and still be rooted in truth. Is there any relationship as enduring, intense, and clandestine as the one between a woman and her food?

In The Closer (Mondays at 9 p.m. on TNT, beginning June 13), the deft and under-appreciated Sedgwick plays Deputy Police Chief Brenda Johnson, a CIA-trained Atlanta police detective who comes to Los Angeles to head the elite Priority Murder Squad. She has a reputation as being the best "closer" in law enforcement — her interrogations always yield confessions that hold up in court. She has an unerring understanding of human nature and more than a taste for theatricality; inside the interrogation room, she becomes whatever sort of woman she senses the suspect might need to confess to. Her detective skills aside, the fact that she’s female and an outsider ruffles many feathers in her new squad room, and the boys lay it on thick with the sexist remarks. But Brenda gives as good as she gets. "Excuse me, lieutenant," she smiles in a peachy drawl. "But if ah liked being called a bitch to mah face, ah’d still be married."

The Closer is a crisply entertaining cop show from Nip/Tuck producers Greer Shepherd and Michael M. Robin. The first episode is built around a decent puzzler about a dead woman found in the home of a missing software billionaire. But the most watchable thing about The Closer is Sedgwick. She takes a character who could have been a Clarice-Starling-meets-Jane-Tennison wanna-be and gives her a snippy, complicated personality of her own. Brenda is alive with a rabbity energy that suggests a woman who’s been trying to outrun personal demons for a long time. She has secrets. In the first episode, there’s an allusion to an "ethics inquiry" back in Atlanta. It’s also made clear that she has a romantic and professional history with her (married) boss, Assistant Police Chief Will Pope (J.K. Simmons from Oz).

Brenda is emotionally divided — part no-bullshit cop in charge, part insecure, lonely woman in her 40s who’s still being nagged by her parents about her bewildering career choice. And Sedgwick makes smooth and believable the transitions between the public and private Brenda. It’s tough work being a tough girl, and when the act becomes too stressful, Brenda seeks comfort in junk food. She keeps candy bars hidden in her purse, in her desk, in the bedside table in the hotel where she’s living. But like many women, Brenda wrestles with that pesky food-guilt issue. Through much of the first episode of The Closer, she fights temptation in public (she agonizes over the doughnut box in the squad room, finally takes one, walks around with it, then doesn’t eat it) but succumbs in private. At the end of the first episode, she collapses on her hotel bed with what appears to be a Hostess Ho Ho, savoring each bite of the chocolaty disk with orgasmic moans, and Sedgwick makes you feel you’re seeing the real Brenda Johnson at last. Drawn to the forbidden and the dangerous, she relaxes only when she’s indulging her secret passions in blissful isolation.

SO, YOU THOUGHT that after all those weeks of teasing, the season finale of Lost might answer a few questions. Ha! No clear look at the giant person-eating monster thingy. No polar bears. No solution to the riddle of Hurley’s "cursed" lottery numbers. No explanation for why the crazy French chick has hairless armpits despite living in the jungle for 16 years and being, you know, French.

And that mysterious metal hatch that Locke finally blasted open? Big deal — it’s a hole in the ground leading to a tunnel. A long, long, long tunnel, symbolizing perhaps the long, long, long summer ahead as Lost fans wait for J.J. Abrams and company to spin out another season of exquisite torture.

But let’s look at what we do know in light of the finale. The crazy French chick wasn’t hallucinating — there are "Others" on the island. And those Others finally showed themselves. They’re appear to be grizzled descendants of the Gorton’s fisherman, floating around in uncharted waters on a little trawler. I don’t think there was a scarier moment on TV this year than when Michael and his fellow survivors on the makeshift raft thought they were being rescued by the boat full of old weirdos and then the lead weirdo said to Michael with surreal pleasantness, "The thing is, we’re going to have to take your boy."

Well, it’s nice to know that you weren’t just being paranoid about Michael’s boy, Walt. The kid is, it seems, the key to the mystery. Ever wonder why, of all the passengers on the plane, there seems to have been only one child? The crash was orchestrated, I’m telling you. And it’s because of Walt. Of all the survivors, his back story is the sketchiest. Over the season, we saw at least four allusions to Walt creeping people out. His stepfather didn’t want him after his mother’s death because, as the guy told Michael, weird stuff happens around him. In a flashback scene, Walt got really, really angry and a bird crashed dead into the window glass. The night before the fateful flight, Michael told surly Walt that he was going to get on that plane with him whether he liked it or not, and Walt replied, in a resigned and oddly portentous tone, that, yeah, he knew, they had to. And then Walt sabotaged Michael’s first attempted rescue raft by torching it to ashes.

Yep, unlike the rest of us, little Walt could see it all coming.

Issue Date: June 3 - 9, 2005
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