The Return of Jezebel James
Created by Amy Sherman-Palladino
Produced by Dorothy Parker Drank Here Productions, Regency Television, FOX Television Studios
Aired on FOX for 1 season (7 episodes, 4 Unaired) from March 14, 2008 – March 21, 2008
Parker Posey as Sarah Tomkins
Lauren Ambrose as Coco Tomkins
Michael Arden as Buddy
Scott Cohen as Marcus Sonti
Ron McLarty as Ronald Tomkins
The series centers on a well off and buttoned down children’s book editor named Sarah Tomkins who, after a break up with a long-time boyfriend, finds her plans at having a husband, then a baby, flipped when she decides to go ahead and try to make a baby all on her own. The plan hits another bump when her doctor explains she is unable to conceive, and therefore she needs to consider other options.
Sarah turns to Coco, her estranged free spirited sister, as she is the only person who Sarah trusts to be her surrogate. Coco is unsure about the situation at first, but warms up to the idea when she realizes Sarah produced a series of books based on an imaginary friend of Coco’s named Jezebel James (whom it’s pretty clear is actually Coco’s scapegoat from when she would terrorize Sarah during their younger years).
The two sisters must now live and work together in order to have, and eventually raise, a child that may just bring them closer and bond them as a family. The series would, at times, mine comedy and narratives from workplace shenanigans, but would mostly focus on familial dynamics and conflict between the two sisters, particularly their differences, as Sarah can be tightly wound, detail oriented, and exuberant, while Coco has a more chaotic and apprehensively cynical demeanor.
During the end of Gilmore Girls‘ fifth season, Amy Sherman-Palladino had been having tribulations with The CW (formerly the WB) network, which led her to end her involvement with the very series that she created. As it was, she and the network were unable to come to a reasonable contract agreement, so she and her husband Daniel left to pursue other ventures while the series continued without them. Not too long after, the Palladinos would begin developing a new series for FOX, who ordered a put pilot commitment deal that would ensure that whatever the Palladinos would produce would make it to air.
The new series was to be a more traditional multi cam style sitcom, which Amy Sherman-Palladino produced a pilot script for, with two predominant female leads to be cast. The pilot script drew the attention of two notable non-sitcom New York actresses, which placed the production of the series in the east coast. As the cast grew, the series was given a 13 episode order. The writing and production of the sitcom proved difficult for Amy Sherman-Palladino, as her later scripts would go through last minute changes and, at times, run twice as long as a typical sitcom episode, leading to the day’s production bleeding into the next day. The Writer’s Strike of 2007 was beginning to take hold during the production as well, which prompted the FOX network to cut down the season order down to only seven episodes. The show had a one hour midseason premiere, airing both the pilot and second episode before returning the following week at its regular timeslot. The premiere drew in poor ratings and critique slams, and the second week did no better, which brought the network to lay down the cancellation axe on the series, with the remaining episodes getting released on iTunes months later.
With an incredible writing talent like Amy Sherman-Palladino, well versed and capable leads in Parker Posey and Lauren Ambrose, and what appears to possibly have been carte blanche creative control, what could’ve possibly have gone wrong?
There are several things that one could easily criticize about this sitcom that could’ve contributed to the series’ problems; the overblown laugh track, the broad performance of Parker Posey’s Sarah against Lauren Ambrose’s grounded portrayal of Coco, the rushed and half-baked premise, or the difficulty of transitioning back to multi camera shows after having perfected a vision with a single camera sensibility. But the biggest error is the network’s inability to allow the show time to build, grow, and improve. This has been an ever present issue in modern television making, as networks keep giving new series less and less of a chance to get better. The Return of Jezebel James may not have been a great sitcom from the get go, but there are plenty of interesting ideas and potential growth and indications of where the series could go had it been given the opportunity to last.
Amy Sherman-Palladino is an excellent writer, and the dialogue on this show could attest to it, as it is sharp and witty. The problem with The Return of Jezebel James is that the writing relies too much on the dialogue for its humor, and misses opportunities for sitcom-style physical interplay. The dialogue at times would also get lost when being delivered at the rapid pace that may’ve been better suited in an hour long format. Parker Posey is an incredible actress, and does comedy very well, but it’s hard to imagine her portrayal of Sarah being what Palladino had in mind for the role, especially when one imagines Lauren Graham or Sutton Foster delivering the lines with the right amount of charm so as to not make the character appear manic. Lauren Ambrose appears well suited enough with the material she’s given, as her reactions of confusion and discomfort to Posey’s almost constant wide eyed cheery attitude seem more than appropriate.
Although the material doesn’t exactly gel in the beginning, with the pilot and second episode being as problematic as they are, there is a lot of genuine heart and character growth that develop between the two sisters. The intrigue only grows when the audience gets a proper introduction to their parents, Ron McLarty and Dianne Wiest as Ron and Talia Tomkins. Ron is a very sitcom-like father type, with his need to fix things that possibly don’t need fixing, and his constant imposing of his services on his daughters. As Talia, Wiest is a true highlight of the series, as she plays the guilt-tripping put-upon mother with great comic timing. When the series explores the family dynamics and the girls’ temperamental upbringing, or the bonding that the sisters have after not really knowing each other, is where the show really excels.
The episode “Sarah takes a bullet” is a particularly notable one, and has both girls attempt to have dinner with their parents, with Sarah trying to deflect their mother and father’s criticism away from Coco. The episode begins with Coco, as always, trying to avoid spending time with her parents, as they drive her insane with their judgmental comments and treating her as a hazard to herself and others. It becomes clear why Coco considers herself the black sheep when, during dinner, she is treated with kid gloves, and also realizes that there are no pictures of her anywhere, as the walls appear to be shrines to Sarah. By episode’s end, Sarah draws the parents’ fire away from Coco by being subjected to their judgment herself, and Sarah and Coco bond on the sting of their parent’s criticism with a bottle of liquor that Coco had hidden. It’s a nice moment, although the episode has little resolution. The most bizarre thing about this episode, though, is the videotape recording of Sarah’s high school play, which features current day Parker Posey portraying the younger Sarah with no sense of irony. One can suppose this is the kind of thing a sitcom is allowed to get away with.
The overall quality of the series doesn’t entirely improve by the final episode, as the characters still appear to be sketches, rather than fully realized personalities, with a direction that is not made entirely clear. There is some mix between office work and home life conflicts that happen, but not enough to have either defined. There is a romance between Sarah and a coworker that plays out and does appear to be developing into something, and the chemistry between Posey and Scott Cohen isn’t bad either. In future episodes, it’s quite possible that their relationship would’ve had some ups and downs. There is also a tease of another secondary character, played by Michael Arden, becoming a love interest for Coco, but that had no development within these episodes. After watching all the episodes, it’s plain to see that there was much potential in the series, and the shame and the pity comes from the networks having not enough faith in it to give the show more time to bloom.
Currently there is a lot of attention for Amy Sherman-Palladino, due to her upcoming attendance at the ATX Television Festival for a Gilmore Girls Reunion panel (which may or may not be announcing some exciting news), as well as a Bunheads panel and a Coffee with Amy Sherman-Palladino panel. A show Palladino will most likely not be mentioning is The Return of Jezebel James.
But that should not mean that it’s not a show that ought to be seen, because when there’s a show creator as unique and talented as Amy Sherman-Palladino, even their unsuccessful projects are worth investigating, as these types of writers tend to lend a lot of themselves to their work. Discerning their mistakes and what works and seeing what they may’ve learned from those errors can be very educational, as well as inspirational. Palladino is a subject that would warrant such a study, and it would be shame if The Return of Jezebel James was left out of the discussion.
Post cancellation, Amy Sherman-Palladino would go on to create Bunheads for ABC Family.
Parker Posey would continue her Television career with guest spots on The Big C, The Good Wife, Parks and Recreations, Louie, and in eight episodes of Granite Flats.
Lauren Ambrose would go on to appear in Torchwood Miracle Day, the Michael Crichton TV miniseries Coma, Law & Order:SVU, and most recently USA Network’s mystery action series Dig.
This show is not available in home video media. All 7 episodes are available to stream at Hulu (web only).