Michael Patrick King knows what it feels like to take the long road to success. After many years working as a lowly waiter in New York City, he was battle tested by the Big Apple, which gave him multiple life experiences in one lifetime – a blessing for a writer.
The writer and director of Sex and the City, King, 60, didn’t grow up knowing all about the high life enjoyed by Carrie Bradshaw and her fashionable pals.
In fact home was hardscrabble Scranton, Pennsylvania, the famously blue collar Irish town where it really didn’t do to have big notions about a glamorous life in New York.
But King, who was discreetly gay and in search of a freer life, was undaunted. Arriving in Manhattan at the age of 20, he started on the bottom rung, working as a luggage attendant at Penn Station.
From his earliest days he was a survivor in other words, and his determination to get ahead at any cost is something that he shares with Valerie Cherish, the fictitious heroine of The Comeback played by Friends star Lisa Kudrow.
Valerie, like Kudrow, was once the star of an iconic TV sitcom that practically defined her era, but now after a decade spent in the wilderness of late night home shopping channels and abortive career choices, she wants to stage her comeback in a reality show that she directs and stars in herself.
It goes about as well as you’d expect. Hollywood is a tough town with a short attention span and Valerie is a brittle star with a bottomless need for attention, a recipie for ensuing comedy disasters which arrive almost from the first scene.
King is particularly good at writing moments that are simultaneously hilarious and harrowing, as Valerie repeatedly sacrifices her dignity for a shot at renewed stardom.
The Comeback’s first season was originally broadcast back in 2005 and ran for 13 episodes. The problem at the time was that its reality show premise -- what happens when an actress decides to document her return to the Hollywood scene with a camera crew recording every moment -- was still a little ahead of its time, in the days before the reality format really took off.
But Time magazine and Entertainment Weekly understood the show’s real significance from the get go, calling it one of the 10 best shows of the decade.
So given the talent of the actress involved – Kudrow produces comedy gold in the part – and King’s stature as a writer and director, it was probably inevitable that the pair would give the show a second shot.
They were wise to take another look at it. Reality shows are an over familiar format in 2014, and the indignities that Valerie experiences this time around bite harder and deliver much bigger laughs.
But The Comeback is about more than just narcissistic celebrity neediness, although it has a lot of pointed things to say about that. The show has a lot to say about middle age and aging and the hardening of spirit that can come with one too many disappointments.
Kudrow, who shares a writing credit with King on the debut episode, produces the most sustainedly funny character work she’s ever delivered. Clearly both she and King know all about the kind of actress they’re skewering and so The Comeback feels effortlessly real.
Valerie thinks she has Hollywood figured out, but she doesn’t. Hiring a student film crew to capture her every move (including in the bedroom), her plan to put herself back on the map hits speed bumps from the show’s opening moments.
King has had the inspired idea of casting Paulie G. (Lance Barber), her nemesis from the original series, in the role of her savior. Fresh out of rehab where he failed to kick his drug habit, Paulie has written Seeing Red, a satire based on his experience of working with her.
When Valerie gets her hands on the script she recognizes she’s being lampooned and calls the lawyers in. First crying defamation she actually ends up getting cast in a role that is actually based on herself.
Both King and Kudrow bring their A-game to the series of set ups that Valerie’s surprising casting and awkward reunion with her former nemesis are calculated to create. The fun for the audience is the sheer amount of abuse and absurdity she’ll willingly endure in pursuit of some kind of stardom.
King’s ability to understand and write for opinionated woman characters is the result of growing up in a house full of Irish American women he says. The only son in a family of three sisters -- Eileen, Mary Ellen and Patty -- he was surrounded by strong women from his earliest days.
But being gay has also helped him to understand and empathize with women trying to make it in a man’s world. Kudrow herself says that gay men were among the biggest supporters of the 2005 show.
“When The Comeback first came out, I think that gay men were the only ones who were like, ‘Yes. I understand. I get it. It's great, and I understand,’” she told the press this week.
Gay men understand the idea that you become the butt of someone else’s joke or snide comment because in any given day they often are. That’s why they warm to Valerie quicker than others, Kudrow suggests.
“Valerie gets, you know, humiliated -- or she humiliates herself -- all the time. And it’s like, yeah, well, that's the world.”
King says he believes there is one story left to tell in a potential third and final Sex and the City movie. Earlier this year Sarah Jessica Parker told InStyle that she believes there is one last chapter to tell.
The exciting news is that King agrees. “The great gift or riches or luck is that I worked on two shows that were so full that they spilled over into people’s lives, and the characters were rounded enough that you could still wonder where they are,” King told the press this week.
“Sarah Jessica and I both know what that final chapter is. That doesn’t mean it will or should be told, but I do think there’s one story left. Whether it ever happens is a whole other situation. But there’s four girls, and those girls are still in my mind. There are other stories to tell and characters that haven’t even been written yet.”
Meanwhile in The Comeback King has produced his best work. It may not open to the fanfare of the Carrie years, but it has talent and comedy to burn. See for yourself when it opens on November 9 on HBO.