How HBO’s The Comeback talks to us
I started watching The Comeback haphazardly; the same way I’d pluck something off a shelf at Duane Reade, say something to a friend, or make nearly any other decision, lol. Sometimes these decisions become meaningful.
In The Comeback, Lisa Kudrow plays Valerie Cherish, a self-obsessed and clueless actress attempting to revamp her career. She’s landed a small part in a new show called Room and Bored, which will be cross-promoted by a reality show starring Valerie herself. So what’s it like to watch The Comeback? It’s a show about a show about a show and duh, it’s awesome. As you might imagine, the META nature of the show is very moving for a human being.
Valerie Cherish is micro-managey and goal-driven, and while you want to hate her, she is ultimately free from judgment because she is holding up a mirror for the viewer. She is you and me: narcissistic, high-maintenance, oblivious, greedy, careless, and apt to harm others. Even more, her worst nightmare is that she can’t control how people see her. Sound familiar?
Think about it: we create piles and piles of content tailored to our own personal brands. We crop, filter, and share. We save drafts and edit. We produce whole datacenters of stuff that gets thrown at the proverbial velcro wall of our friends’ attention just hoping it will stick. O, the futility. Hand-crafted, curious, curated content. All of this work for free, free, free. Why?
I don’t know exactly why. I’m gonna file the belief that there are simple answers to complex questions under “neoliberal bullshit.” But there is identifiable stuff at play here: 1) we want to know that we exist and 2) we naturally emulate our society.
While we want to differentiate ourselves from the crowd, we also are desperate for the crowd’s approval. I DON’T NEED APPROVAL! I CAN LITERALLY SIT AT HOME ON A FRIDAY NIGHT AND WATCH NETFLIX AND BE TOTALLY FINE WITH IT you might be thinking. That’s cool, but “approval” doesn’t necessarily require the trappings of a social life filled with obligations. That requires work…which is why we all collectively decided to replace friendships with Uber and Seamless in 2014. Besides, you can get approval on the internet.
We want to know that we exist. Approval, recognition, validation… these things seem innocent enough on the surface, but our society is far from innocent. As cute millennials, we’d like to believe that we’ve grown up as “content creators” and “producers.” But take a historical and contextual point of view, it’s more likely that we produce propaganda like we produce a carbon footprint or a heap of trash; it’s natural. That’s just the way life is. But how’d it happen? We should talk about film.
Hollywood ostensibly produces films, but there’s more to these cultural objects than sheer visual candy. There’s a lot at stake in a our society when it comes to the subjective experience of individuals; namely, how they view their own productive effort. Someone who believes in idleness as sin is a lot more valuable in a capitalist society than someone who believes in idleness as virtue. This is why society is invested in your subjectivity- it hopes to co-opt the way you view the world.
For a long time, Hollywood had a chokehold on the subjectivities of the masses as the producer of viewpoints for people to consume and thus embody. Hitting cultural cues, striking while the iron’s hot; movies and TV help us understand how to feel about ourselves and the world around us. This is how subjectivity is produced.
Nowadays, a rapid evolution in media and communication have empowered us to tailor our subjective experience beyond stuff that’s strictly from the upper echelons. There is simply more access to more stuff to watch and think about. While social media and the internet allows us to have a broader view and perhaps become more empathetic and enlightened, we have a lot working against us, as we come from a society that is heavily invested in control, submission, policing and surveillance.
It would logically follow that this type of society creates a culture made up of individuals who, as subjects of coercion, want to, in turn, exercise control. We feel it in ourselves and we experience it in others.
This might help us understand why we sometimes resent our closest friends (and their internet presence). Or why, at times, your Instagram feed takes on the tone of a propagandic assault. Simply put, narcissism hurts people. It’s a coercive practice and a could be response to our coercive society.
Back to Valerie Cherish. Let’s face it, her naïve attempt at controlling the way a bunch of strangers perceive her was never going to work. The act of mediating reality through a thing archaically called a “reality show” renders Cherish powerless, as the forces of production themselves ultimately exercise their agenda. Like the reality shows we know today, The Comeback (the one within the show itself) premieres as a lewd, humiliating thing. But at least she gets the most important thing of all: recognition.