I was amped for the premiere of the new Fox sitcom The Return of Jezebel James. First off, as someone whose relationship to TV normally mimics that of a wino and a big bottle of Night Train, the writer's strike and its aftermath has been hard for me. Second, series creator Amy Sherman-Palladino was the brains (and something like 80% of the dialogue) behind Gilmore Girls, and I loved Gilmore Girls. And finally, if 2007 was the year of the unexpected-pregnancy film, 2008 is shaping up to be the year of the Odd Couple-esque gestational-surrogacy comedy—along with Jezebel James, there's the upcoming Tina Fey-Amy Poehler film Baby Mama—and I was curious to see how a half-hour sitcom was going to tackle the tricky subject of assisted reproduction.
So: Amy Sherman-Palladino, good. Parker Posey as children's-book editor Sarah, good. Lauren Ambrose, as her transient, Chinese-restaurant-dwelling sister Coco, good. And Dianne Wiest playing their Garrison Keillor-listening mother? Gooood. But the show? Oy.
Part of the problem is the format. A conventionally structured sitcom (complete with laugh track) just doesn't have the roominess required to set a scene the way the hourlong Gilmore Girls did, and in this case feels a million times more stilted: The dialogue that even on GG sometimes came so fast and thick the actors had trouble keeping up seems on Jezebel James like it's crammed into all the wrong places. (This is made weirder by the fact that the first two episodes were peopled with ex-Gilmore players—Rose Abdoo, who played bad-tempeted local mechanic Gypsy, here plays a bad-tempered pregnant lady; Scott Cohen, Lorelei's former fiancé Max Medina, shows up as Posey's not-quite-boyfriend, Marcus.) Sherman-Palladino even imported a Gilmore quirk—Lorelei and Rory's tongue-in-cheek fascination with Hello Kitty—into the first two episodes, with confusing results.
But the other thing is that it's just hard to buy the show's premise: That Sarah, recently split from her boyfriend, wanting a child, and unexpectedly diagnosed as infertile, would immediately turn to the estranged sister whose lifestyle she disdains; and that Coco would be so instantly willing to move into her sister's well-controlled life and be, as she puts it, "an incubator." ("An incubator with TiVo," Sarah corrects her, in one of the show's many supposed-to-be-funny lines.) Posey is doing one version of the many high-strung, brittle women she's played, with a dash of what it looks like she hopes is Lorelei Gilmore spunk; Ambrose is also playing a variation on a former character, which is slightly better only because that character happens to be Six Feet Under's Claire Fisher.
As with the odious Sex and the City knockoffs Cashmere Mafia and Lipstick Jungle, Jezebel James is offering a stale can't-have-it-all characterization of its heroine that's all signifiers and no nuance. We first meet Sarah as she's on her cell phone, listening to her assistant run down her daily schedule of meetings and more meetings; her assignations with Marcus are regimented and emotion-free; she only eats takeout. Basically, she's a real live version of that '80s joke magnet of the tearful, Rauschenberg-esque woman lamenting "I can't believe I forgot to have children!"
And then there's that. The trailer for this spring's Baby Mama suggests that it's not impossible to make a comedy about being reproductively challenged. But it doesn't seem like Jezebel James is going to be it. So far, the jokes are too glib, and Posey's characterization isn't going to help the stereotype of the late-thirtysomething single woman as frantic womb raider. If the show lasts—and its deadly Friday-evening tie slot may mean the network's not banking on it—we can assume it'll have to touch on some interesting stuff, like the economics and ethics of surrogacy and the emotional life and reproductive freedom of the surrogate herself. Based on on the first two episodes, though, it may be too much to hope that the show will do more than slap some canned yuks and few more Hello Kitty references on it.