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Television Review

This 'Jezebel' is a mess

Lauren Ambrose plays Coco, half of the sister act in Fox's 'The Return of Jezebel James.' Lauren Ambrose plays Coco, half of the sister act in Fox's "The Return of Jezebel James." (Richard Foreman/Fox)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / March 14, 2008

As Claire on "Six Feet Under," Lauren Ambrose stole many a scene with her low-key, mordant style. She was the depressed artist who could be so humorously underwhelmed by people. Ambrose's Claire embodied the show's blackly comic outlook so perfectly that, in the series finale, the story lines all came down to her point of view.

With her soft deadpan and her renegade vibe, the red-haired actress doesn't belong within a mile of a laugh track. And yet tonight, on the new Fox sitcom "The Return of Jezebel James," Ambrose has a laugh track practically sitting on her shoulder blasting its cackles out to the world. Like her "Jezebel" costar, indie-film regular Parker Posey, she is supposed to be a full-fledged Fox laugh riot. And guess what. She isn't. The show, which premieres tonight at 8 on Channel 25, is a full-fledged Fox flop.

Posey, so adept at being both ironic and sympathetic, is no better off in this unfunny mire. She plays a high-powered publishing-house editor named Sarah, who is so hyped up she seems in desperate need of medication. Posey plays her with all the subtlety of a vaudeville comic, using lots of antibiotic hand cream so we'll know she's neurotic. In this "Odd Couple" tale, she's the Felix.

Why does Sarah talk so fast? The show was created by Amy Sherman-Palladino, who made rapid speech into a sweet bond between mother and daughter on "Gilmore Girls." In "Jezebel," the breakneck speed is charmless, and it only makes the characters harder to believe. After watching Posey here, I admired "Gilmore" stars Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel all the more for their ability to remain human through all the words they had to spout.

Although she looks absolutely nothing like Posey, Ambrose plays Sarah's estranged, underachieving sister, Coco. Coco is a messy cynic who wears an Army green jacket and resents Sarah's success. When Sarah learns she can't conceive children, she contacts Coco. "I need your uterus," is what she says. What she means is that she wants Coco to carry a fetus for her. Why would Coco say yes? Why would she jettison her deeply held pride and move in with her judgmental sister to help Sarah have it all? For no good reason other than that the show must go on for seven episodes, which is all that Fox has ordered of this mess.

Sherman-Palladino might have had better luck with "The Return of Jezebel James" - named after a children's book heroine invented by the sisters - if she'd made it into an hourlong dramedy like "Gilmore Girls." Then she might have been able to flesh out the characters and dump the laugh track. Then, maybe, "Jezebel James" might really have had a chance to return.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit boston.com/ae/tv/blog/.

The Return of Jezebel James

Starring: Parker Posey, Lauren Ambrose,

Scott Cohen

On: Fox, Channel 25

Time: Tonight, 8-8:30 and 8:30-9

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