I can't tell you how heartbroken I am. It's always a sad day when something fails to meet your expectations and, while there were several pilots I was anxious to see, The Return of Jezebel James was definitely towards the top of my list.
Let me begin by saying that I've been talking endlessly about Jezebel James for the past few months. As a huge Amy Sherman-Palladino fan, I've reported every single casting decision on the pilot and have been more than a little in love with the script since I read it back in December, which made my recent viewing of the pilot all the more, well, upsetting.
Quick 411 on the pilot:
It's written and directed by Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino (she of the whip-smart dialogue and who has a penchant for wacky hatwear) and follows the complicated relationship between two very different estranged sisters. The older sis, Sarah (Parker Posey), is a children's book editor for a major publisher (one of her series of novels revolves around the adventures of the titular Jezebel, a.k.a., "Pippi with a Blackberry"). The younger sister, Coco (Lauren Ambrose), is a free-spirited if somewhat jaded bohemian who Sarah had evicted from her last home, a shelf above a noodle station in a Chinese restaurant. Sarah has recently discovered that, despite being ready to have a baby (even if it's not with her commitment-phobic boyfriend Marcus, played by Gilmore's Scott Cohen), she can't conceive a child. So she turns to Coco to carry the baby for her and offers to pay her (and house and feed her, along with giving her access to TiVo) in exchange for the life-altering favor.
It's a cute premise and a real departure from Gilmore Girls, which at its heart was about the relationship between the closer-than-humanly-possible mother-daughter combo of Lorelai and Rory. Here the same central relationship is fractured, possibly beyond repair, and these two women couldn't be more different or carry more baggage. What the shows do have in common, beyond their creator, is the sort of quick-witted repartee that's so sharp it could cut someone.
So why doesn't The Return of Jezebel James work? For one thing, it's mostly shot as a multi-camera traditional sitcom, complete with an obnoxious and off-putting laugh track that literally makes you not want to laugh; it's disconcerting and awkward and doesn't match at all with the sort of smooth dialogue and character interplay that would be much more at home in a single-camera comedy. The laugh track actually distracts you from what's funny, covering several jokes and making the flow much more of a set up-beat-punchline-pause format than the material warrants. (Old Christine is the perfect example of a show that succeeds in spite of the raucous laugh track; 30 Rock would be a mess with such a device.) These well-crafted lines of dialogue are smashed into verbal mush by what I believe to be the network's inability to trust the audience. Trust me, FOX, we don't need to be told when to laugh.
It's not to say that Jezebel James doesn't show some potential, because it does. I've never wanted to like a show, despite the painfulness of the pilot, as much as I did while watching this. So how would I fix the show? Easy. A few suggestions:
(1) Eliminate the laugh track altogether. Sherman-Palladino is known for her dialogue, so don't drown it out. Her shows are also known for their fantastic use of music and cues (think Sam Phillips here) rather than the clunkiness of the dreaded track.
(2) Reshoot the pilot as a single-camera comedy without a live audience. Relish in the freedom and possibility of not having to pause for the punchline each and every time. Use those beautiful sets (especially the sweeping office set) to their full advantage.
(3) Have Posey tone it down a bit. I'm a huge fan of the inimitable Parker Posey but her delivery here is a little overly theatrical, possibly heightened by the fact that there's a live audience watching her on the set and it's easy to slip back into old habits. The scene between Sarah and Marcus, in particular, felt a little too stagy; her hysterical breakdown a little too over-the-top to be taken seriously. Subdue some of that theatricality and Sarah will seem a little more sympathetic and three-dimensional, rather than approaching cartoonishness.
(4) I'm not sure what they were going for with Posey's overall look, but it needs serious retooling. She's meant to be somewhat bohemian (though not in a punk, Coco sort of way) but she's been dressed in some dowdy outfits that don't do anything to make the character more appealing. Instead, Posey's thin frame is lost in billowy materials that make her seem frumpy and her hair is permanently in front of her face (forcing her to constantly readjust her bangs). Lose the shabby, sack-like dresses and make Sarah more slick and stylish. She's a creative type, yes, but she's also more corporate than Coco, who can definitely afford to be the more quirky dresser of the two.
As I said before, I really do want to like The Return Jezebel James but the pilot isn't doing the series (intended for a mid-season launch on Wednesday nights) any favors. At first I was disappointed that the show wouldn't air until mid-season but now I'm hoping that the extra time will give them the opportunity to make some simple adjustments that could possibly elevate Jezebel James from one-note sitcom to the smart and funny comedy I know it could be.
* * *
Jace is an LA-based television development and acquisitions exec who watches way too much television for his own good and would love a TiVo for every room in the house. (He’s halfway there.) His blog, Televisionary, can be found at televisionaryblog.com.