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The Comeback: HBO revisits a camp TV classic

Lisa Kudrow is back as Valerie Cherish with a second season of The Comeback. HBO

Susan Sontag once wrote that the ultimate camp statement is, “It’s good because it’s awful”. But can camp go too far? To paraphrase a line from the 2001 film Ghost World, can something be so awful that it goes past being good, and goes back to being awful again? This is a question ardent fans of reality television might find themselves asking now and then.

This month, HBO relaunches The Comeback to US audiences, a critically acclaimed TV comedy series that was cancelled after only one season in 2005. With the return of Valerie Cherish, the show’s central character played by Lisa Kudrow, it is a good time to start thinking about camp again – and what it looks like on television.

A teaser for the long-awaited Season 2 of The Comeback.

Notes on Camp

Camp is notoriously difficult to define. Sontag deftly approached this problem in her groundbreaking 1964 essay, Notes on Camp. Instead of proposing a rigid definition, Sontag offered a series of reflections on the camp sensibility that took the form of non-linear “jottings”.

Notes on Camp highlighted camp’s affection for irony, theatricality, the anachronistic and the exaggerated. Sontag identified homosexuals as camp’s most articulate audience, but stressed that not all homosexuals are camp.

She also recognised camp as a unique way of engaging with objects in mass culture. For the camp connoisseur, it doesn’t matter if a film (or popular song, piece of furniture etc.) isn’t “beautiful”, “true” or “serious”. If it failed passionately enough in these areas, it could still provide some pleasure as an item of camp.

Camp and TV

Sontag’s essay had a significant influence on the way in which critics have reacted to television.

In the early days of television, the medium attracted a great deal of criticism for its perceived moral and artistic shortcomings. But in the 1960s, as outlined in the research of media historians Lynn Spigel and Henry Jenkins, television critics started to use the word “camp” in response to popular shows like Batman. Features of the program that might once have been dismissed as trashy, such as low production values, silly plot-lines and hammy performances, had become acceptable, and even enjoyable.

But what does camp mean for television in more recent times?

When it first aired nine years ago, The Comeback was a brilliant meditation on camp’s relationship with the television industry of that era.

For the uninitiated: The Comeback follows the career woes of Valerie (Lisa Kudrow), a washed-up sitcom actress who is willing to subject herself to endless humiliations in order to reinvigorate her celebrity. When she lands a supporting role in a crass sitcom named “Room and Bored”, she also allows a shamelessly exploitative reality TV crew to film her attempt to reclaim stardom.

Valerie has all the markings of a camp icon. Much of the comedy of the series derives from her character’s affected voice, theatrical mannerisms, out-of-date clothing and hairstyle. For an idea of how this camp humour plays out, watch this clip of Valerie’s (unintentionally) hilarious rendition of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive”:

Valerie belts it out on The Comeback.

While The Comeback takes considerable pleasure in Valerie’s possessed performance in the scene above, the show is also self-conscious about its participation in the camp sensibility. It expresses an anxiety that camp irony can quickly descend into cruelty, especially as it is channelled by television formats like reality TV and the sitcom.

In both contexts, Valerie is routinely coerced into performing camp against her better judgement. In “Room and Bored” Valerie plays “Aunt Sassy”, a middle-aged landlord whose sole purpose within the sitcom is to appear grotesque and ancient. Despite Valerie’s complaints, Aunt Sassy exclusively wears pastel jogging suits in all her scenes.

Similarly, the reality TV production process often tricks Valerie into behaving hysterically, transforming her from a human being into a bizarre caricature. Watch the scene below, in which Valerie is asked to repeat the same line over and over again (against a garish backdrop). Note how she is being pushed into the camp realm of the exaggerated.

Valerie performs for the camera.

As a piece of “quality television” (a brand of programming HBO is famous for pursuing, often involving dense story-lines, rich aesthetics, and morally ambiguous protagonists), The Comeback was able to take a nuanced position on camp. It might have celebrated Valerie as a camp figure, but it also raised uncomfortable questions about the way camp interacts with “aging” women in Hollywood, and the extent to which Valerie is complicit in her own abasement.

What happens next?

Since its cancellation, the show has often been praised for its prescient vision of the television landscape.

And yet, for all the breathtaking degradation suffered by Valerie, there is a lot that The Comeback did not anticipate.

For example, one of the seasons of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills had to be re-edited after a housewife’s husband committed suicide. We’ve seen celebrities in rehab. We’ve seen, inexplicably, Tyra Banks convulsing on the floor in a state of delirium after giving away some free Vaseline to her studio audience.

Tyra Banks’ Vaseline frenzy.

We’ve also seen the triumphant return of RuPaul, although even he has received criticism from some transgender activists, who are unamused by the irreverence of his camp humour. Ryan Murphy has achieved formidable commercial success for his camp takes on the “horror” and “musical” genres.

Meanwhile, HBO’s claim to high-calibre television increasingly faces worthy competition, with network television producing critically acclaimed series, and companies like Netflix and Amazon creating innovative distribution models.

It will be exciting to see how The Comeback navigates itself through these developments. What has Valerie been up to? One presumes that television has supplied her with ample opportunity for embarrassment in front of millions of viewers.

But more importantly – will she perform another cover of a classic disco anthem?

Season 2 of The Comeback launches this weekend on US television.

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