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A one-season wonder is gone, but it won't be forgotten

'The Comeback' is headed for cult status on DVD

``The Comeback" will never come back, and that hurts so good.

What hurts? The HBO series that roughed up red-carpet Hollywood, Velveeta sitcoms, and its own viewing audience will never again make me cringe in ironic joy. And Valerie Cherish, the controlling has-been actress played by Lisa Kudrow, will never again let me love hating her so much that I really love her after all. As 17th-century TV critic John Milton put it, ``For Valerie is dead, dead ere her prime/ Young Valerie, and hath not left her peer."

But here's the ``so good" part: I believe that, beginning Tuesday with its release on DVD, the one and only season of ``The Comeback" will find its destiny as a TV cult classic. I hereby nominate the show for membership in TV's esteemed One Season Wonder Club, alongside the likes of ``My So-Called Life " and ``Freaks and Geeks ." It deserves an afterlife within the growing canon of extraordinary TV shows that, for one reason or another, did not survive their brilliant youths. ``Wonderfalls, " ``Keen Eddie, " ``Action " -- they're hot, they're sexy, and they're dead, as Rolling Stone once said of Jim Morrison. They're more captivating now for having left before their time.

They're also more captivating for having never succumbed to the indignities of age. Valerie may be dead in her prime, along with her grunge nemesis -- one of the great contemporary nemeses -- the sitcom writer Paulie G. But that means ``The Comeback" will never be corrupted by TV, the medium that has a taste for slow, painful terminations. Thankfully, ``The Comeback" will not grow up to become season eight of ``Will & Grace," or season 11 of ``Frasier," or season five of ``Ally McBeal." It will stay forever young, a satire that was too sharp for its time.

The essentials about ``The Comeback": It's a faux reality show about an older actress, Valerie Cherish, making a sitcom comeback on a Fox-like banality called ``Room and Bored." That multi layered setup sounds complicated, but it plays out surprisingly naturally. And it allows the writers to shoot darts at the lies of reality TV, pop culture's youth fetish, the marginalizing of older women in Hollywood, the fool's paradise of celebrity egos, and the profound cynicism of TV writers and networks. And surely I've left out a few targets.

What still awes me about ``The Comeback" is probably what kept it from developing a big audience: It's entirely willing to risk its own likability to sling its ugly truths. Viewers and critics were turned off by the relentlessness of Valerie's humiliations at the hands of Hollywood. Relegated to playing the prudish Aunt Sassy on ``Room and Bored," she keeps falling further into the bottom of the barrel, despite her delusions of grandeur. In one episode, she literally gets dog poo in her blow-dried hair -- a symbolic event that proved that writer Michael Patrick King of ``Sex and the City" was not planning to prettify, and that Kudrow was not planning to cash in on her ``Friends" lovability.

Our embarrassment and discomfort with the misadventures of Valerie is part of the show's power. ``The Comeback" doesn't give us much of a safe distance; it rubs our noses in the superficial and heartless industry we've helped create. It's hard not to feel a little sadistic when you laugh at Valerie and her pathetic optimism. Played with such twisted relish by Kudrow, who is nominated for an Emmy, she is both a product of our entertainment idolatry and a victim of it. While ``Entourage" also takes a hard look at Hollywood, it's an affectionate series that emphasizes the highs rather than the lows of its characters. It's giddy, not gritty.

But I should note that ``The Comeback" does have just-plain-comic moments; it's not a relentless morality play. Kudrow's slapstick is expert -- watch her crawl down a plane aisle or move in a giant muffin costume -- and a dual vomit scene had me on the floor. And after the first handful of episodes, our girl has small but significant moments of triumph. When she's angry enough to give up her denial, with its hokey Zen bow and exclamations of ``I don't want to see that!," she gets in some very good punches. As Valerie might say to herself in those moments, ``Hello, hello, hello!"

The season's arc clearly allows Valerie increasing amounts of glory, if at the cost of some dignity. In more detail than any documentary or article I've seen, ``The Comeback" ultimately explains the allure of reality TV for B-level actors. As a reality star, Valerie becomes someone again. The final two episodes of the series are just exactly perfect.

Like the British version of ``The Office," another classic cringe comedy about a grating person, ``The Comeback" is a 13-episode miracle. It went out in a blaze of glory, now safe in the world of DVD, where ratings are irrelevant. Certainly there are other short-lived series that deserve a place in TV history beside the granddaddy of One Season Wonders, ``The Prisoner." There's ``Invasion," ``The Tick," ``Eyes," ``Profit," ``Undeclared," and ``Grosse Pointe," and they all have their champions. But if I can only lobby for one Hall of Fame inductee, I have to choose ``The Comeback" and Valerie Cherish, the once and future ``It Girl."

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

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