The comeback of "The Comeback" cleverly began exactly the same way as the first season, with a test pattern and an indication that we were seeing raw footage for a show called "The Comeback."
Yet the show that followed was very different. Yes, it's still raw footage from a camera crew -- this time, a group of students Valerie Cherish is using to produce a pilot presentation for her own reality series -- but both Valerie and the series have changed.
Most significantly, Valerie is in control. She's far less insecure and constantly troubled about how she'll appear to others, in part because she's the one controlling her film crew, however amateur they are. This time, if she makes that T with her hands, they really will time out and not use it ("My show, I can cut it"). Or at least, that's the way things appear now.
It's a remarkable change for the character, who's not nearly as desperate, neurotic, or put-upon as she was during season one.
Although she is still worried about her image, there's also a new, uglier edge to Valerie. Early in the episode, she's in bed with her husband reading Paulie G.'s script for an HBO series based on his experiences on Room and Bored. There's information in that scene--Room and Bored didn't get renewed, and neither did Valerie's reality show--but it's most striking because Valerie angrily parrots her husband and calling Paulie G. a slur, and then slips back into her old ways.
"We can't say 'cocksucker' because I had Tyler put back the ceiling camera," she said. Valerie Cherish has become what she never wanted to be: mean and controlling, and she's also become Jane, the producer who followed her around to capture footage that would ultimately be manipulated by editors in the show's great first-season finale.
Valerie Cherish has also become more savvy, but it's not growth. The end of season one showed Valerie finally embracing the humiliation she feared so much, but what's happened since then has jaded her so much that she's now willing to create drama.
She first realizes she misses a moment to literally make a scene when, in a callback to season one's penultimate episode, she's punched in the stomach--though not quite intentionally--by a host at a restaurant.
Later, she jumps on the opportunity when she senses that she can make a scene at HBO, where they're casting her part in the new dramedy, a casting call she misses because she doesn't even know who her agent is any more. She ends up succumbing to flattery and niceness, and also surprises everyone at HBO with her emotional line reading of a scene (from her own life, so of course it's emotional).
"The Comeback" itself felt weighed down by its references to reality television.
That's because, with the exception of a wasted cameo by RuPaul Charles ("you've got that show!" Val says to him, and then he's ignored), a reference to "Survivor," and an offhand summary of other series, the entire episode only refers to Bravo reality shows.
Yes, Val is initially working to pitch a new reality show to Bravo, and that makes Andy Cohen's cameo plausible, but it's a weird choice to have the characters in this universe only talking about Bravo shows, never mind all the Bravo cameos.
Perhaps the most successful was Val's failed appearance on "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills," refusing to fight with Lisa Vanderpump because she's still burned by her experiences with her reality show. That interaction is loaded with references (to Kyle Richards, the New York version of "Housewives," the way producers set up meals and plotlines in advance) that are both hilarious and not-so-subtle commentary on the genre.
Still, it almost felt like product placement, especially when "Top Chef"'s Carla Hall showed up so another character could make a throwaway joke/reference to "Top Chef." The first season had plenty of reality TV show references and cameos, but they were more purposeful.
Just has Valerie has gotten a little more craven in her desire for attention and affirmation, it seems like "The Comeback" has, too.