"Did we force ourselves on you, or you on us?"
(Goethe, Faust: Part One)
The best television about television is the saddest. Larry Sanders is the Great American Sitcom, a sourly unimpeachable Moby Dick of shaded, disconsolate shits. The closest British equivalent, Alan Partridge, gets even better as Alan ages, and latest series Mid Morning Matters, with its webcam POV and almost Beckettian economy, is the subtlest, most claustrophobic yet. But very few other shows-about-shows, as snappy and stuffed with cameos as they might be, fully shake off the non-jeopardy of Rich People's Problems (let's exclude Chris Morris for the moment, or it's not fair on anyone).
The territory with the least appreciated melancholy, perhaps, is reality TV. One of The Office's masterstrokes was it tapped into the (at the time) growing, Warholian trend of shows from which people became famous for being themselves rather than playing a fictional character. The genre is now so gargantuan it has started to feed itself, where the contestants of I'm A Celebrity and Celebrity Big Brother are increasingly alumni from other reality shows. Yet the most intelligent reality television, like Channel 4's First Dates, works tragicomic muscles the best scripted shows don't even have. The Alzheimer's widower who goes to the loo to comb his hair, or the silence of the rejection-phobe turned down at the end of his first date in years, is the stuff of high literature, as elegantly carpentered as Alice Munro or Raymond Carver, but smoked and knotted with real life.
So what of the people who make it, or the production line of eccentrics it chews and gobs out? No scripted show has emulated the mad-as-hell, hand-of-the-producer prescience of Network (1976), or the voyeuristic, puppet-mastered empathy of The Truman Show (1998), though Black Mirror hints at both. None has really investigated the diabolical pact fame-for-fame's-sake makes with identity and whether this is always a bad thing (in Grayson Perry's superlative Who Are You?, for instance, ex-X Factor contestant Rylan eloquently describes 'Rylan' as a character, the flamboyant, emotionally bulletproof embodiment of what "little Ross from Bethnal Green" wanted to be). But then along comes The Comeback, which somehow, masterfully, captures the whole damn lot.
After a nine-year hiatus, the show returns for a second series, which went out in the US on HBO before Christmas and is due imminently in the UK on Sky Atlantic. The first series (originally broadcast in 2005 and now available on Sky On Demand) is a masterpiece of discomfort, an unusually necessary mockumentary that probes at the root canals of fame. It focuses on Valerie Cherish, an actress who had her own show in the nineties and hasn't had a hit since. After winning a supporting role in execrable new sitcom Room and Bored, a reality camera crew agree to follow her comeback, with rather less reverence than Valerie signed up for.
Lisa Kudrow, who wrote and created The Comeback with former Sex and the City showrunner Michael Patrick King, is just astoundingly good as Valerie. The sea of fame has soaked her heart through, but the prospect of airtime kindles an underground fire of ambition. Every laugh, every tic, every self-determined catchphrase ("Hello hello hello!") is so impeccably contrived that Valerie becomes a sort of grim, flappy mannequin: she picks and twitches at malign ambiguities, twines her career stresses around her marriage, squitters her insecurities over the wailing wall of fame. Not since Brent has a mockumentary character been so aware, so mortifyingly aware, of the camera. In Valerie's desperation to curate the way she comes across, she unlades her self-doubts in spine-thrills of embarrassment. The mask, to bastardise Updike, has eaten into the face and already wants seconds. It is one of the TV performances of the century.
Valerie, and Kudrow as Valerie, would be enough, but the river of characterisation runs deep. Some are in Val's corner: Valerie's patient businessman husband Mark (Damian Young); spry stylist Mickey (Robert Michael Morris); benevolent writer Tom (Robert Bagnell); Val's "baby girl", smarter-than-she-lets-on superstar-to-be Juna (Malin Akerman). Others are very much not, and two especially. Reality TV producer Jane (Laura Silverman) is Valerie's sly Mephistopheles, a duty-of-carefree agent provocateur who teases out clownish extremes and bedevils Valerie with questions, obfuscating her narrative intent and accelerating the half-realities that fit. Their relationship becomes a scornful symbiosis and the final scene of the first series, in which they hug, is both optimistic and exceptionally depressing.
But Val's most monstrous adversary is showrunner 'Paulie G' (Lance Barber), a tempestuous, leering, portly king-of-the-bullies. What an exquisite bastard he is. His eyes are leprous and winedark stones, his lips slopping eels of contempt, his wit serrated with rusty nihilism. He makes Val's life hell and she, misguidedly, spends too much time trying to win him round.
There is a third game of cat-and-mouse, and that is with the camera as objective observer. The first series takes the form of the unabridged footage, the 'rushes', of Valerie's comeback (in the final episode, we see the edited end product). The second series, without giving too much away, is an amateur film-school project that morphs into something more insidious. Again, we see the unfiltered footage, and it might be even better than series one, as the scope broadens and the stakes heighten. The final, hour-long episode is particularly ambitious, stamped with an almost Biblical virtuosity, and one brief moment towards the end (where Valerie tries to order a cab) is as tender and helpless a career highpoint for Kudrow as the last scene of Captain Phillips is Tom Hanks'. No more clues, except that Seth Rogen has a lovely, extensive cameo as 'Seth Rogen', cast to play the part of a writer based on (and, ominously, written by) Paulie G.
In reality TV, there are so many layers of truth - the second-guessing, self-filtering and pre-emptive admissions of the contributor; the potential simplification, omission and distortion of character traits in the edit - that it's almost impossible to tell where reality starts and artifice begins. What even is reality? How real is it possible to be if you know there's a camera on you, especially if you're a professional performer (played by a professional performer)? Over the course of series one, Valerie becomes a pollutive undermemory of what she was, stippled with guilt. Her personality is like a reflection of her personality in rippling water, drenched down, the grey alive crushed underneath. She alienates her husband Mark, the least LA-contaminated character in the show, and over the second series the pained, funny-at-first kinks of their relationship only deepen. The script, especially in the scenes between Valerie and Mark, is so good it's invisible: the footage feels like life, so lifelike and intrusive you almost feel ashamed to watch it. Every performance is a mini-marvel of throwaway naturalism, and you can imagine them all out there when the cameras are off, most behaving rather differently.
The final reason this show is so bloody good is that, like Parks and Rec's Leslie Knope and Veep's Selina Meyer, its female central character is allowed to be funny. Valerie isn't there to laugh or frown at the men's jokes and impressions: the comic universe revolves around her. Husband Mark is a deliberately mysterious figure, a much more nuanced rework of the second-fiddle usually meted out to the wives in brom-coms. The show also satirizes the crammed maleness of Hollywood: the treatment of 'lady writer' Gigi, the crass stereotypes of shitcom Room and Bored, its justly glacial reception. Indeed, there's an internal, ironic juxtaposition between the ill-fated Room and Bored (two hot guys, two hot girls, one Aunt Sassy!) and the rather more original central double-act (a woman in her forties and a gay man in his sixties) of the show itself.
Comebacks seem to be in vogue. After Ben Affleck and the McConaissance, Michael Keaton has refeathered himself for 2015 with Birdman, a Cortázar-streaked twist on films-about-films. It doesn't always work (Sofia Coppola's Stephen Dorff woozathon Somewhere flew too near the sun of self-indulgence). But The Comeback has always been brilliant, a soaring, qualmless thrill, a hanging heaventree of identity, jealousy, companionship and the necrotic glare of the media. Please watch it on Sky Atlantic or buy it on DVD as a matter of urgency because, as an example of modern television, it is unimprovable.