When I interviewed Parker Posey last week, I asked her about the future of The Return Of Jezebel James, the sitcom she shot seven episodes of prior to the writers' strike. She said she wasn't sure, but that she doesn't "get too attached to outcomes." Well, allow me to end the suspense for her: The Return Of Jezebel James will be lucky if all of its seven episodes make it to air, let alone if it gets renewed for a second season. And if Miss Posey does happen to be reading this, I'm going to respectfully ask that she look away from the page for a second while I say something:
The problems with Jezebel James are all Parker Posey's fault.
Well, almost all. There seems to have been a string of bad decisions that led up to the shooting of this sitcom–starting with the decision to make it a sitcom. While Jezebel James creator Amy Sherman-Palladino showed a flair for writing funny lines during her long run as the brains behind Gilmore Girls, that show was more a quirky drama than a straight-up comedy. The rhythms of a traditional three-camera sitcom are very different, and Sherman-Palladino's trademark rapid-fire dialogue has a harder time snaking around the laughs of a studio audience (especially once they've been "sweetened").
That said, there are indications here and there that Jezebel James might've worked as a Gilmore Girls-esque hour-long semi-drama. The concept isn't that bad. Posey plays an unmarried middle-aged children's book editor who's decided she's ready to have a baby, until her doctor informs her that she has Premise Disease–or as the show calls it, Asherman's Syndrome. So Posey calls up her wayward, hateful sister Lauren Ambrose and asks her to serve as a surrogate mother. Ambrose is understandably reluctant, until she finds out that Posey has created a juvenile fiction series based on Ambrose's girlhood imaginary friend, Jezebel James. Tentative bonding ensues.
Yes, all of the above is pretty contrived, but it's also right in the Sherman-Palladino sweet spot. Though it ran out of narrative gas well before the finish line, Gilmore Girls worked countless fresh permutations on the idea that no matter how much we try to define ourselves as individuals, we're still crippled to some degree by the way our families see us. So there's definitely a lot that Sherman-Palladino could do with the idea of two polar opposite sisters moving in together and working as a unit to raise a kid. And especially against the backdrop of the New York publishing world, with his particular stresses and hubbub.
But the sitcom format is a knee-capper, as is Posey's all-over-the-place lead performance. One minute she's manic, the next she's loopy and she never seems to have the kind of confidence and control that someone as reportedly powerful as her character should have. Mostly she seems drunk. And that's odd, because Posey gave one of my favorite performances of last year, in the mediocre indie romantic comedy Broken English. There she played another lonely single gal pining to settle down, but she played it with the kind of dramatic melancholy she's rarely shown in her career. Posey only shows that side of herself once in the pilot of Jezebel James, in the scene where she tells her sister about her Asherman's Syndrome. Otherwise, she's elusive, and hard to like.
Wasted in all this is Ambrose, who does have a handle on her character, and who brings out the best in Posey when they share scenes. For some reason, Fox sent along an episode set to air in April along with the one airing tonight, and the leads' chemistry stays strong even as the master-plot crawls and the jokes keep dying on their way out of Posey's mouth. I know Posey's not attached to outcomes, but that shouldn't keep her from landing a punchline.
-There are some funny lines here and there, like Posey's answer to a young fan's query about why she made his favorite character Brambles McGee die: "Again, I'm an editor. I didn't make him die, I made him die quicker, and with a fancier font."
-A lot about Jezebel James' pilot made me miss Gilmore Girls, including Posey's sometime sex partner (played by the guy who played poor Max back in GG's first season), and a scene set in a skuzzy diner. Or maybe the diner just made me think about how good Scott Patterson is on Aliens In America, a wonderful show that appears to be dead and gone.
-Hey, you know who would've been great in the leading role? Lauren Graham.