Screen Test

The Comeback and hit TV show Homeland return with mixed results

Actress Claire Danes returns in spy thriller Homeland. -- PHOTO: SINGTEL
Actress Claire Danes returns in spy thriller Homeland. -- PHOTO: SINGTEL
Lisa Kudrow, who played the kooky Phoebe in Friends, returns with a few more wrinkles and a darker vibe in The Comeback. -- PHOTO: HBO
Lisa Kudrow, who played the kooky Phoebe in Friends, returns with a few more wrinkles and a darker vibe in The Comeback. -- PHOTO: HBO

You do not get more "meta", or self-referential, than The Comeback, a new television series about a former sitcom star trying to revive her career. It stars Lisa Kudrow, a former sitcom star doing the same.

At its worst, this sort of naval-gazing humour can feel clunky and forced, and there are moments in the first few episodes of the HBO series - which has Kudrow playing a washed-up actress, Valerie Cherish, who is trying to relaunch herself by creating her own reality TV show about - and here the snake devours its tail yet again - her would-be comeback.

Once you get over the initial shock of seeing Phoebe from Friends with a few extra wrinkles - which is what you are meant to feel, it being no accident that this is the famous face from that hit sitcom - the next emotion is distaste: at Valerie's palpable desperation for fame and delusions about her own talent and celebrity, as well as her vanity, tone-deaf cluelessness and insecurity. Kudrow's scratchy, occasional shrill voice makes it all the more uncomfortable to watch, which is where this painful sub-genre of comedy gets many of its laughs.

Valerie's failed attempts at trying to be funny and savvy make her one of several portraits of incompetence sketched here - her dolt of a nephew and unsavvy publicist being two others - and you rightly cringe as they try to cobble together a reality show and flog it around town.

We learn that Valerie was briefly cast as a bit player on The Real Housewives Of Beverly Hills, but could not hack it because she did not want to play the villain. But she then trades this in for fresh humiliation by agreeing to play a nightmare version of herself in a new HBO TV show created by a writer who clearly loathes her and has dreamt it up as a revenge fantasy.

It all makes for uneasy viewing, as does Valerie (and Kudrow's) brittle laugh and general phoniness, which means the comedy frequently crosses over to the dark side and sometimes vanishes. Yet, the series grows on you, as does its protagonist, who by the fifth episode starts to become more empathetic and relatable as she - finally - gains a bit of self-awareness and shows some humanity.

As a commentary on the workings on Hollywood, the series does score some hits but overall, has yet to better shows such as the acutely observed and rather underrated Episodes - another comedy starring a former Friends star, Matt LeBlanc, although the latter gets more of a chance to send himself up.

The Comeback feels like it is going for something altogether bleaker, so the challenge will be to keep the audience laughing rather than just depressing the hell out of them.

As Homeland marks its fourth season, a bunch of other new shows that its success helped inspire have been unveiled - among them State Of Affairs starring Katherine Heigl and Madam Secretary with Tea Leoni. Watching these new series can only deepen your appreciation for the writers and cast of the original, which revolves around the brilliant but troubled CIA analyst Carrie Mathison, as played by the excellent Claire Danes.

You almost want to forgive Homeland its transgressions of Seasons 2 and 3, where it appeared to be contriving ludicrous plot twists merely to sustain the star-crossed romance between Mathison and Nicholas Brody (Damien Lewis), a returning war hero-turned-terrorist .

This burned a lot of the goodwill earned after the gripping first season, in which we got to see Carrie as the lone voice of reason trying to out Brody while also battling her bipolar disorder. After the torrent of abuse from critics and fans, the creators eventually killed Brody and, with this new season, have made a conscious break from that approach.

The results, however, are mixed. On the one hand, it is thrilling to have the show focus once again on spycraft and also dig deeper into Carrie as the capable but flawed female protagonist rarely seen on TV - the best examples being her lack of maternal instinct over the baby she had with Brody, and her callous, almost unhinged (and yet rather inspired) behaviour as she tries to find the culprits behind the lynching of the former CIA station chief in Islamad and the subsequent kidnapping of her mentor Saul Berenson.

The bad: hints that there might now be a romance between her and Quinn (Rupert Friend), a non sequitur that seemed parachuted into the plot out of nowhere, along with some rather hamfisted twists in the geopolitical/diplomatic machinations of the show, which call to mind over-the-top moments from the series 24.

But the cliffhanger at the end of the latest episode, which suggests a siege might be imminent at the US embassy in Pakistan, strikes a more promising note. Like State Of Affairs and Madam Secretary, plot lines such as this are inspired by real-life political events, which makes them more compelling, but only Homeland seems to have the chops to pull it off convincingly.

The Comeback airs on HBO/HBO HD (StarHub TV Channel 601). Homeland airs on FOX Movies Premium (StarHub TV Ch. 622 and SingTel mio TV Ch. 414)