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Pilot Inspektor: FOX's "The Return of Jezebel James"

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 penchant for wacky hatwear) and follows the complicated relationship between two very different estranged sisters: 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"); younger sister Coco (Lauren Ambrose) is a free-spirited if somewhat jaded bohemian whom 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 its 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 the 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 midseason launch on Wednesday nights) any favors. At first I was disappointed that the show wouldn't air until midseason 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.

What's On Tonight

8 pm: Two and a Half Men/Two and a Half Men (CBS); Deal or No Deal (NBC); Everybody Hates Chris/All of Us (CW); Dancing with the Stars (ABC); 24 (FOX; 8-10 pm)

9 pm: Two and a Half Men/Two and a Half Men (CBS); Heroes (NBC); Girlfriends/The Game (CW); The Bachelor (ABC; 9-11 pm)

10 pm: CSI: Miami (CBS); Law & Order: Criminal Intent (NBC)

What I'll Be Watching

8 pm: Waking the Dead on BBC America.

It's the return of the stylish smart UK murder investigation series. On tonight's episode, Boyd and his team investigate a decomposing corpse found buried in Hampstead garden while a murderer escapes from a psychiatric unit. Is there a connection? Will Boyd be grumpy? Find out tonight.

9 pm: 24.

It's the season finale Day Six of 24. While FOX doesn't give us much in the way of previews, here's what we do know: that international incident looms ever larger and Jack is once again foced to save the country. Will he succeed? Will he fail? Well, FOX renewed the series for another two seasons, so it's not really much of a mystery. Let's just hope next season proves to be a little more enjoyable.

10 pm: The Riches on FX.

Is anyone else watching new drama The Riches on FX? On tonight's episode ("Anything Hugh Can Do, I Can Do Better"), Wayne gets a taste of being the boss when he fills in for Hugh as the head of Panco, Dahlia attempts to bond with DiDi, and Dale fills Hartley in on what he's really doing there in Eden Falls.

Comments

Anonymous said…
Jace, I think your comments were right on. This was a great script but the pilot feels forced and clunky. I definitely think it would work better as a single cam without that awful laugh track.

I like Posey and Ambrose (even though they don't look remotely related) but agree that Posey needs to tone it down a bit. And no one should be overwhelmed by their wardrobe. Not a good sign.

Still, I'm keeping my fingers crossed that there will be some serious retooling before this airs. I still think there is a lot of potential in this show and just hope that they can smooth out the kinks in time.
Anonymous said…
I think you pretty much nailed it, though I was a little harsher on PP (I think I said that she made me want to claw my eyes out). I usually love her, but in this? Ugh.

Laugh track felt less like it was filmed in front of an audience and more like they went to the "I love Lucy" vaults to find a particular brand of god-awful canned laughter.

Disappointment barely covers it.
karin said…
oh no, I really wanted to like "jezebel..." but after watching a few clips on fox.com & reading your review I guess I'd better stick to old GG & SFU-reruns.
rockauteur said…
This was a multi-camera comedy? I guess one network had to create one!! I am still shocked that Sam I am is a single camera comedy, but I think that better serves Christina Applegate's talents anyway (though the similiarly themed ABC John Stamos single cam show bit the dust in the same time slot basically).
linda lou said…
I think you are right about everything you've said. The laugh track is so horribly inappropriate. I can promise you that people are not going to appreciate that horrendous laugh track to Posey saying "I can't adopt. I can't even share a bathroom". It just isn't right..and it takes away from the more sensitive moments of the show. I hope you know someone influential that will fix this!
Anonymous said…
random side-note...
maybe the "laugh track" is annoying...
but the show is filmed before a live studio audience...sooo real people are watching the show, laughing, and their laughs are recorded during the live filming...
i know, random, but probably it sounds force because some dumb people want to see if they can find their own laugh on tv or something!!
Garrett said…
Seriously, the laugh track has to go.

Its also disheartening to see Michael Arden's character rendered as another comic gay stereotype.

Extremely disappointing...you'd think the Palladino's would be above this type of tired schtick
Anonymous said…
I see what you are saying, but I see so much potential in this script, and maybe Fox just doesn't get it? I mean, they got rid of Arrested Development! The laugh track does match the fact that it IS a mulit-cam comedy, so it's not that far out there. I'm going to watch it and hope that Fox can support Amy's vision.
Anonymous said…
Just looking at the promo, i completely agree! The palladinos are obviously not NY'er natives, 'cause, we don't dress or talk like that. Where's the freakin' hutspah?! This ain't Conn., sweethearts -- this is freakin'
Noo Yawk, baby!

Look to the long lamented ghost of "Sports Night," cut out that obnoxious soundtrack, get Parker an upper eastside barney's consultant & lauren a Bleeker street urban gypsy stylist and change yo' ways... We are totally rooting for you guys!!!!
Anonymous said…
The two story apartment in Manhattan on an editor's salary threw me.

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