The Return of Jezebel James

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8-8:30 p.m. Friday, March 14
Fox

Amy Sherman-Palladino established her reputation for clever banter, off-center but charming characters and heartfelt drama with "Gilmore Girls." Her mother-daughter dramedy was so relatable and universal that her characters transcended the small screen. Watching it, you wished you could hang around with them.

Shows like that are something rare, as Fox's "The Return of Jezebel James" amply demonstrates. In this new sitcom, the stories are exaggerated, the premise is incredible and the chemistry is almost nonexistent. You want to run if you see these characters coming. The only thing they have in common with "Gilmore Girls" is a penchant for speaking at breakneck speeds.

Frenzied career woman Sarah Tompkins (Parker Posey), pretty much out of the blue, begins hearing the ticks of her biological clock. No sooner is her heart inexplicably set on having a baby, then she learns that she is not capable of bearing one. At the same time, the only guy in her life is businessman Marcus Sonti (Scott Cohen), with whom she has a "friend-wth-benefits" relationship.

Sarah's solution, even before settling on a sperm donor, is to talk her sister, Coco (Lauren Ambrose), into being a surrogate. Coco is, of course, Sarah's opposite -- and just as extreme. Coco is a free spirit with few possessions. She sleeps on whatever couch is available. Even worse, Coco doesn't like Sarah. After years of being the neglected daughter, Coco wants nothing to do with her.

So how does uptight Sarah persuade rootless Coco? Clue: It has something to do with the series title and it taxes credulity even more than everything else up to that point.

Fox sent out the pilot and an additional episode that shows how much the show has been retooled. Some sets are new, and they've dialed down the hostility between sisters, but it's still more about frantic comic soliloquies than a coherent vision with credible characters.

The supporting cast -- Sarah's man friend, her assistant and her father -- are one-dimensional straight men. Dianne Wiest was added to the cast as Sarah and Coco's mother after the pilot was made. However, she wasn't in the additional episode sent by Fox, making it impossible to gauge her impact, if any, on the show.

Sherman-Palladino's script tries too hard to make every joke do double duty later in the episode. And because she directed the pilot, it meant there was one fewer voice to suggest dialing down the overheated tone. Plaudits to Ambrose for her effort to bring some honesty to her scenes, but it isn't enough to keep the show from imploding.

After Friday's premiere, it moves to its regular time period at 8:30 p.m.

THE RETURN OF JEZEBEL JAMES
Fox
Regency Television Prods.
Credits:
Executive producers: Amy Sherman-Palladino, Daniel Palladino
Producer: Michael Petok
Director-teleplay-creator: Amy Sherman-Palladino
Director of photography: Donald A. Morgan
Production designer: Stephan Olson
Editor: Skip Collector
Music: Grant Lee Phillips
Set designer: Susan Eschelbach
Casting: Jill Anthony Thomas
Cast:
Sarah Tompkins: Parker Posey
Coco Tompkins: Lauren Ambrose
Marcus Sonti: Scott Cohen
Buddy: Michael Arden
Ronald Tompkins: Ron McLarty
Talia Tompkins: Dianne Wiest
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