Are We Laughing with Parker Posey or at Her?
Last week I tuned in to watch the first two episodes of Fox's new show "The Return of Jezebel James." With everything the show has going for it--including actors Parker Posey, Lauren Ambrose, Scott Cohen, and Dianne Wiest, and "Gilmore Girls" showrunner and writer Amy Sherman Palladino--you would think the new 30-minute sitcom would be a homerun. But sadly, it never amounts to more than the sum of its parts.
Parker Posey plays a single New York book editor named Sarah who wants to have a baby but can't conceive. So she decides to approach her estranged and down-and-out sister Coco to carry her baby. Coco, played by the wonderful Lauren Ambrose (Claire on "Six Feet Under"), moves into Sarah's apartment and family quarreling and hijinx ensue. Add in two over-the-top parents (Dianne Wiest and Ron McLarty) and a commitment-phobic boyfriend for Sarah--played by the all-too-humpy Scott Cohen--and you get a mildly amusing sitcom. But the operative word is "mildly."
A few things you should know going in. 1) "Jezebel James" doesn't really mine any new comedic gold. It feels a bit contrived which is only emphasized by the show's intrusive laugh track. 2) You can see most of the jokes coming from a mile away so they deliver little punch on arrival. And 3) Posey and head writer Sherman-Palladino don't seem to paint main character Sarah with much finesse.
As we watch Sarah find out she can't have children, the news is delivered in a deadpan set-up and delivery joke. A turning point in Sarah's life that should be emotionally consequential, something that in fact drives the plot of the show, is treated as an offhand issue and reduced to a joke about how hard it is to do a cartwheel. It makes me wonder that if Posey and Sherman-Palladino don't care enough about Sarah to show us how the situation really makes her feel, then why should we as an audience even care?
Sure, "The Return of Jezebel James" is a sitcom. But for me to want to laugh with Parker Posey's character, I have to like her. And if I don't much care about her, and the writer's don't much care about her, and the jokes aren't that funny--then we're at a place where we're not laughing with Parker Posey or even laughing at Parker Posey. For a sitcom, that's a big problem. With the enormous talents of the cast and the writer, I'm hoping things improve.
Image courtesy FOX