A major, unanswered question this season of “The Comeback” has been what exactly is motivating Paulie G., why he created an HBO dramedy to depict his experience writing a short-lived sitcom. Episode three didn't answer that question, but it did underline it with a very disturbing scene that Paulie G. wrote into his new series: Valerie's character performing oral sex on Paulie G.'s character.
While that never actually happened, as Valerie Cherish and eventually Paulie G. acknowledge, it's written as Paulie G.'s fantasy, which may very well have happened. Either Paulie G. did once fantasize about Valerie in the past, or he's using that to humiliate her in the present; both are disturbing.
Seth Rogen, playing Paulie G's character on “Seeing Red,” is the only person who recognizes how demeaning this scene is for Valerie, and how much she really does not want to do it. He stops it by suggesting that he can sell the scene and it can be shot without her needing to be visible. (Because she's Valerie Cherish, she ends up in perhaps an even more embarrassing position, her head on his lap, out of the frame, as he fakes his own orgasm.)
Maybe he's the only person with the power to do that, since Val does ask Paulie G. how to play the scene, and ends up suggesting that she could do it “eager, reluctant, [or] not at all.” She doesn't stand up for herself more than that, though, having previously acknowledged to Paulie G. how much she needs this show to work, just as he admitted to her the same thing.
Seth Rogen is not the only person who shows Valerie respect this episode — Jane is particularly forthcoming about how exploitative she thinks all this is, which is very out-of-character for her — but Seth Rogen is remarkably perceptive about everything while still being jokey. He notices Paulie G. giving Valerie a look and calls him on it, which puts him on the side of the audience/camera crew.
Rogen, the rela-life actor (not the actor-as-character), plays this version of himself remarkably well. So many of these types of cameos end up being exaggerated, obnoxious versions of an actor, who clearly has fun playing a jerky version of him- or herself. Here, it's the opposite, but Rogen plays himself with restraint and humanity so his character doesn't come off like as one designed to make the real-life actor look good.
It just feels real and genuine, like you could imagine Seth Rogen in this actual position. And there's fun interaction between his character and Lisa Kudrow's Valerie Cherish, who is, as usual, trying to impress others.
What didn't feel as real was the scene in which Valerie had to stand in her “Room and Bored” track suit between two fully naked porn stars, who were making orgasm sounds. That seemed to serve no actual purpose for “Seeing Red” other than to humiliate her and degrade the women; perhaps the same could be said for “The Comeback” using that scene. Do we really need to humiliate Valerie this much? Is this much awkwardness necessary? We get it.
Now that “The Comeback” season two has arrived on the set of “Seeing Red,” the show felt more grounded than it did in the first two episodes — but it also felt like it found very familiar territory to settle on for its themes. How much humiliation with Valerie Cherish subject herself to to earn some respect? Can she prove that she's more than who Paulie G. thinks she is? Will the ever-present camera crew undercut her efforts?
“The Comeback” season one did those things so well, I'm not sure why “The Comeback” season two is trying, unless it's trying to prove that nothing really changes. But like Paulie G., its motivations are still unclear.