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TV Weekend: Unhappy Return

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Luke’s Diner it ain’t. / Richard Foreman/FOX

There are certain shows that, as a TV critic, you simply want to ignore out of gratitude for the work the principals have done in the past. This includes, for instance, the sitcoms Jeffrey Tambor has made since Arrested Development. Likewise, Amy Sherman-Palladino gave us the winsome and witty Gilmore Girls. Lauren Ambrose was wonderfully complex as Claire in Six Feet Under. Parker Posey—loved her in Dazed and Confused, as well as a dozen other indie movies I once saw the the Angelika Film Center and can not offhand recall the titles of.

Yes, Gilmore Girls, Six Feet Under and Dazed and Confused—right fine entertainment! Why not rent the DVDs of those this weekend? Yessiree, you can’t go wrong that way! Now, moving on—

All right, I’ll face up to it. That elephant-sized crater in the room: it’s the hole left when the expectations I had for Fox’s The Return of Jezebel James crashed to Earth after I saw two episodes.

The sitcom, in which Posey plays a type-A, single children’s-book editor who hires her sister (Ambrose) to be a surrogate mother for her is not only flawed because it makes a Friends subplot into a series. It’s a weird, tone-deaf mismatch of talents, styles and genre.

Sherman-Palladino’s whip-crack dialogue is here, but it smacks up against a jarring laugh track that only reminds you that, where Gilmore Girls’ family dramedy was organic and derived from the characters, Jezebel’s is forced, formulaic and seems imposed on the characters. Gilmore was as great as it was because it was an hourlong comedy that developed from a high-concept situation (former teen mom now has teen daughter!) but it wasn’t at all sitcommy.

Jezebel is the definition of situation comedy: it’s a high-concept combined with a stereotypical family situation (career-minded older sis Sarah and her dark-sheep younger sib Coco)–and once you move past the situation, there’s really no comedy left. Posey, meanwhile, indulges her biggest weakness as an actress, which is to be extremely, extremely mannered: she delivers Sarah’s every line as if sucking on an ice cube made of concentrated lemon juice, and renders her brittle and uninteresting. If we don’t want to spend time with her, it’s hard to sell the premise that Coco might eventually reconnect with her. Ambrose does better as Coco, but the stereotypical prodigal-sis character can’t help but bring up unflattering comparisons to her Six Feet Under work.

It’s not that Jezebel is flat-out bad in a technical sense: there are funny exchanges, signs of heart and evidence of Sherman-Palladino’s personal touch. (Who else would build a series around children’s-book humor?) You could see how it might have worked if the elements had somehow changed: if Sherman-Palladino had made it an hour-long, stripped the laugh track and given the script room to breathe; if Posey had made Sarah a bit more human (Lauren Graham understood that Gilmore’s dialogue was dry enough without further dehydration on the actors’ part); if Ambrose had a better-developed character to play.

As it is, it’s just a reminder of what might have been, and what was, which makes me wonder if the responsible thing to do as a critic is not to review it, but to distract you and help you forget it ever existed. Hey, look out the window! I think that’s a duck!

Now what were we talking about? Yeah, I don’t remember either.