TV critics are a little snow-blind when it comes to Amy Sherman-Palladino's new FOX sitcom "The Return of Jezebel James." You see, like its small-yet-dedicated audience, we all loved "Gilmore Girls." We loved that in an hour, "Gilmore Girls" could be funny, touching, heart-warming and smart. It was a show that defied genre and TV convention.
"Jezebel James" isn't "Gilmore Girls," and the faster viewers deal with it and move on, the faster they'll find things they can enjoy. Sherman-Palladino got her start on traditional multi-camera sitcoms, and "Jezebel James" is a return to those roots. It's visually flat and none of the settings are even vaguely distinctive. Obnoxious laughter -- either canned or audience-provided -- interrupts every punchline, albeit only half-heartedly at times (Sherman-Palladino's writing has always produced different sorts of chuckles from, say, "According to Jim").
Parker Posey is a fine Lauren Graham proxy as Sarah, a successful New York City children's book editor who seems to have everything until she decides she wants to have a baby and is told she can't conceive. Rather than adopting or seeking a stranger as a surrogate, she approaches her estranged sister Coco (Lauren Ambrose, who ought to be a fine Alexis Bledel replacement). Sarah's ambitious, neat and successful. Coco's a messy, unemployed slacker. How ever will they manage to get along for nine months, much less for the rest of their lives?
I have no doubt that many a viewer is going to watch the first episode of "Jezebel James" and say, "I'd love this show if Sarah would get the baby, move to Connecticut, age 15 years and start attending weekly dinners with her prickly parents." At the end of the day, that to me is a bit like saying, "Well gee, '10,000 B.C.' would have been been a great movie if they'd flash-forwarded 11,960 years and made the story about a mob family named the Corleones." It's just not productive.
A more fair comparison would be to put "Jezebel James" alongside "Back to You," "'Til Death" and "Unhitched," the other live-action comedies in FOX's stable. Suddenly, "Jezebel James" doesn't look so bad. In fact, it looks pretty good. Even dealing with the constraints of time and tone required for a 22-minute comedy, Sherman-Palladino's writing is super-smart and super-fast, so quick that if one joke flatlines (and her most obvious attempts at punchlines are the ones that falter most), the next is probably right on the way.
While there's an awful lot of Lorelai Gilmore in Sarah, Posey is a less instantly ingratiating actress than Graham, which makes her a perfect choice. Sarah is high-strung and just a bit OCD, and Posey is happy to play her as prickly and just a bit annoying. Similarly, though Ambrose is certainly a better actress than Bledel, Coco isn't written to be instantly appealing. That's bound to leave some viewers thinking these sisters aren't very likeable characters, but if "Gilmore Girls" was about two women who viewers immediately loved and who loved each other, "Jezebel James" is about two characters who are tough to love and have a difficult time loving each other. I like and appreciate the difference and would be perfectly happy watching Posey and Ambrose -- both learning the sitcom format ropes -- deliver Sherman-Palladino's dialogue for many a week.
Unfortunately, through the two episodes sent to critics, "Jezebel James" doesn't appear to offer much more than that. Because it was an hour, "Gilmore Girls" had its well-populated universe created by the end of the pilot. With her new show Sherman-Palladino doesn't seem comfortable with the idea of A-stories and B-stories, so every episode feels mighty limited. As the man in Sarah's life, Scott Cohen is amiable and little more. Sarah has a snitty assistant who plays like a sitcom snitty assistant and marvelous character actress Dana Ivey's basically in the background of a couple shots and little more. The episodes I've seen didn't include guest star Dianne Wiest as Sarah and Coco's mother and had only a fleeting dose of Ron McLarty as their father. An enhanced profile for Ivey, Wiest and McLarty would go a long way toward bringing "Jezebel James" to life.
In sports, announcers like to refer to which unproven players have the most upside and of all of FOX's comedies, "Jezebel James" is absolutely the one with the most upside. So what does FOX do? The network cancelled the show's planned post-"Idol" premiere and shunted it off to the wasteland Friday nights where only repeats of "House" and "Bones" have performed. No, "Jezebel James" isn't "Gilmore Girls," but I wish we'd have the chance to see what the show eventually might become.