How far can sisterhood extend?
Proof is supplied by the two siblings in "The Return of Jezebel James," the edgy new FOX sitcom from the creator of "Gilmore Girls" debuting Friday, March 14. Movie actress Parker Posey is appealing in her series debut as Sarah, a children's book editor who wants to be a mother but is unable carry a baby to term.
Enter Coco (the equally excellent Lauren Ambrose, formerly of "Six Feet Under"), Sarah's commitment-phobic sister who's so estranged, she sits at the next booth over when she meets Sarah at a coffee shop. She's also Sarah's possible solution - if Coco will agree to move in and act as birth surrogate for her.
Or, as Sarah puts it in noting how "delicate" the subject is, "I need your uterus." The idea doesn't go over well with Coco at first ("I'll have all the morning sickness? I'll get fat? I'll have to go through hours of pain and screaming and sweating? And stretch marks?"), but since a weekly show is built on it, you can expect things to turn around quickly.
And just who is the returning Jezebel James? She's an imaginary character from the women's youth, now the central figure in a book overseen by Sarah, and a major force in bringing her back together with Coco.
Also in the regular cast: Scott Cohen as Sarah's co-worker and secret beau; Ron McLarty as the sisters' expectation-filled father; and Michael Arden as Sarah's office assistant, who pines for Coco. Two-time Oscar winner Dianne Wiest makes recurring appearances as the women's mother.
"A sitcom is infinitely harder to do than an hourlong show," says Amy Sherman-Palladino, who left "Gilmore Girls" the season before it ended because she couldn't get a two-year renewal commitment. "You've got to do your work fast, and if the sitcom is any good, the scenes are about something. And if they're about something, it's even harder, so it's a great challenge for everybody."
The challenge of "Jezebel James" is exactly what lured Posey to television, but she doesn't deem her move such a surprise. "I'm a working actor," the New Yorker explains. "People think actors have such control over their careers, and I really don't. You can't really make a living doing independent film without being a real-estate agent or another job.
"I'm right for the character parts in Hollywood movies, and I can do a lead in an independent film. If I have a reaction to a part, I'm going to do it. I like the humor in this. It's not like somebody comes in and knocks somebody down and somebody gets hurt and everybody laughs. This whole thing about, 'I relented and now I'm finally doing television,' it's not that at all. I read it and I loved it, and that was it."
For Ambrose, a big appeal was being able to film "Jezebel James" in New York, where she lives with her husband and infant son. "Comedy kind of scares me," she says, "and I like to do the things that scare me. I'm such a fan of Parker, and also, sitcoms were such a big part of what formed me as a kid and why I'm an actor. 'I Love Lucy,' 'All in the Family' ... they just informed the acting. And the energy that the audience brings is a great way to work."
Posey admits she never watched "Gilmore Girls," so she wasn't familiar with the rapid-fire dialogue that peppered the exploits of mother and daughter Lorelai and Rory (Lauren Graham, Alexis Bledel). However, "Gilmore" fans will recall those characters having the same kinds of conversations as Sarah and Coco.
"I didn't know the genius behind Amy Sherman-Palladino," says Posey, who read the first "Jezebel James" script in an Albuquerque laundromat. "Then we met, and it was like, 'This really feels right.' "
The meeting also was fortunate for the lively and opinionated Sherman-Palladino, who reflects, "I didn't know who was going to be out there to play this part. Parker's name had always been sort of out there in the ether like, 'Yeah, good luck; go ahead and try that.' It was really just a matter of who had the comedy and who had the acting chops. It's a hard combination."
Though "The Return of Jezebel James" is driven largely by women, co-star Cohen -- who also appeared on "Gilmore Girls" as Max, Rory's teacher and Lorelai's flame -- is comfortable supplying the show's primary male presence.
"The first time I read the script," he says, "I had an emotional experience, basically crying at the end of it. You get so many pilot scripts, and you kind of read through, and everything is pretty much the same. This just hit me like a ton of bricks. There wasn't even a question in my mind of wanting to do it."
Nevertheless, the ladies of "The Return of Jezebel James" are center-stage, as Sherman-Palladino confirms. "It's two women who just don't know each other at all. They've never formed any sort of bond. It's weird because they're adults, but they're just now starting to figure out who they are, how they react, what they like or not, how they're going to make each other crazy or not.
"I think there's not always the best parts on television for women, and if you can throw a couple out there, why not? These are real, multidimensional characters. I would like men in this. Chipmunks or two nice squirrels talking to each other? I'd be fine with that, too. Just as long as the dynamic is interesting and there are places to go."