Thursday, March 20, 2008

“The Return of Jezebel James” and “Miss Guided”: Hotly Anticipated by Me, but Worth the Wait?

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

This was a big television week for me.

Until its swan song last May, “Gilmore Girls” lived in the top spot on my TiVo Season Pass list. And if you ask me who my favorite comic actress is, one of my top five would definitely be Judy Greer. As luck would have it, in the last week, two new sitcoms have debuted, one created by Amy Sherman-Palladino (the overlord of “Gilmore Girls”), and another starring Greer.

Sherman-Palladino’s “The Return of Jezebel James” (Fox, Fridays at 8:00 p.m. Eastern) made its long-awaited debut on Friday, airing its first two 30-minute episodes. Is it anywhere near up to the standards of the late great “Gilmore Girls”? Well, let’s just say that if Lorelai and Rory Gilmore were watching, much mocking would have taken place.

In “Jezebel,” successful book editor Sarah (Parker Posey, with her high-energy personality permanently set to maximum) decides she wants to have a baby, only to be told by her doctor that she cannot because she suffers from Asherman's syndrome. In a display of classic Sherman-Palladino wit, Sarah refuses to accept the news, demanding to meet with Asherman to try and persuade him he’s wrong.

Sarah then decides to ask her ne’er-do-well sister, Coco (Lauren Ambrose of “Six Feet Under”), who is currently living on a friend’s couch, to carry a baby for her. Sarah and Coco haven’t spoken in a year, making the request a long shot. Coco is not receptive to Sarah’s initial overtures, but she is eventually convinced when she learns that Sarah used her imaginary friend (the titular Jezebel James) as a book character (yeah, I didn’t get it either), and by the prospect of having an actual place to live.

So the show becomes a 21st century distaff “Odd Couple,” with the successful, neat, organized, driven older sister opening her home to her unmotivated, sloppy, slacker younger sibling. Sarah and Coco are so far apart in age, look nothing alike, and behave so differently that their disconnect begs for some kind of explanation. None was forthcoming in the first two episodes, but I hope it will be addressed in the future.

It gives me no joy at all to report that the show simply doesn’t work. Not the performances, not the set up, not the writing, and certainly not the staging.

Posey and Ambrose don’t seem comfortable in their roles. Sarah is supposed to be difficult yet lovable, like Lorelai was on “Gilmore Girls,” but Posey lacks Lauren Graham’s warmth, and, not incidentally, the endearing character traits and rich material that Graham had to work with. She comes off shrill in a way Lorelai never did. Ambrose seems flummoxed by her character’s motivations, alternating between two emotions: brooding anger and exasperation. And their meddling parents, Ronald and Talia (Ron McLarty and Dianne Wiest), are too wacky and neurotic to be believable, even by “Gilmore” standards. In the second episode, Talia sits in a cold car for 45 minutes because Sarah never actively invites her to come in. Emily Gilmore would have never been written so broadly. Emily would have walked in and berated Sarah for her lack of manners, all while keeping her outer civility in place. Emily was a rich television character. Talia, on the other hand, would fit in nicely on any of the broad sitcoms of the “According to Jim” ilk. The people in “Jezebel” could use some of the heart and fleshed-out nature of the denizens of Stars Hollow.

The writing doesn’t live up to Sherman-Palladino’s earlier material. (Or, maybe more accurately, she’s channeling her inner “Veronica’s Closet,” rather than her primal “Gilmore Girls” or “Roseanne.”). The dialogue has the “Gilmore”-style brisk pace and challenging pop cultural references, only it feels empty. “Gilmore” was never about snappy dialogue for snappy dialogue’s sake. The words were always in service to the story and the characters. You don’t feel that with “Jezebel.” Much like the final season of “Gilmore” (Sherman-Palladino left the show the summer before), it feels like someone doing an imitation of Sherman-Palladino’s signature style.

The biggest miscalculation of “Jezebel,” I think, is that Sherman-Palladino seems to be cramming “Gilmore”-like, talky dramedy material into the traditional sitcom format. The intrusive laugh track, and the less realistic sets you get with the studio-based, multi-camera set-up, don’t serve the writing, which leans heavily on quirks of character and language. “Gilmore Girls” worked because it was cinematic in scope. It set up a fairy tale world where the quirky Connecticut town filled with oddballs created a family for a single mother and her daughter. “Gilmore” also gave it’s strange townies human, multi-faceted personalities. “Jezebel” currently lacks these attributes, and the traditional sitcom format only highlights what is missing.

A scene in a run-down diner in which Sarah asks Coco for the big favor starkly makes this point. The diner set was so stagey it made the eatery in “Seinfeld” look like it was a working restaurant on the Upper West Side. And a running gag involving a stoner waiter not willing to serve outside of his area fell flat on its face. Seconds into the scene, I found myself pining for Luke’s Diner and an appearance by Scott Patterson to throw a sense of humanity into the proceedings. Not the reaction, I’m sure, Sherman-Palladino was going for.

Look, the pilot of “Friends” is nearly unwatchable, and that program went on to dominate the airwaves for 10 seasons and produce some of the great sitcom writing of the decade. I’m not suggesting that “The Return of Jezebel James” is destined to be in constant rotation on TBS. But Sherman-Palladino has already demonstrated that she is immensely talented. So I’m not writing off “The Return of Jezebel James” just yet. But she has some work to do to right the ship.

Four days after “Jezebel” debuted, “Miss Guided” (ABC, Thursdays at 8:00 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. Eastern), a new single-camera sitcom starring Greer, aired a sneak preview episode before settling into its normal time slot. “Miss Guided” is off to a much stronger start than “Jezebel.”

As I said, Greer is one of my favorite comedy actresses working today, even though she is often relegated to second-banana roles in fluffy fare like “13 Going on 30.” She is one of those actresses you’ve probably seen a million times, but may not place right away because she can be so chameleonic (she’s been in “27 Dresses,” “My Name Is Earl,” “American Dreamz,” “Arrested Development” as George Bluth’s secretary, “Elizabethtown,” “The Wedding Planner,” and “Adaptation,” just to name a few of her more memorable appearances). Greer has a way of popping into a scene (or episode) and subtly taking it over. Like her turn as a seemingly sweet prostitute opposite David Duchovny in “Californication,” as she picks him up, plays with him, and then calls her pimp when he doesn’t have any money on him, but later demands that the muscle who comes to extract a pound of flesh leave Duchovny’s face intact because, she says, he’s so good looking. The part allowed her to play smart and coy, sexy and demure, warm and tough, all at the same time. When Greer inhabits a role, it often seems as if she is the only actress who could pull it off quite that way.

Which makes her choice to take on “Miss Guided” a bit puzzling. Greer’s Becky is a terminally optimistic, saccharine-sweet guidance counselor working at her alma mater. As she sweetly tells us (the characters do a lot of fourth-wall breaking on this show), she wasn’t the most popular kid in school, but she did partake in a lot of activities, as the yearbook reveals her to have been in groups like the debate club and the Milli Vanilli fan club, which had all of two members. Becky is pretty one-note, and certainly not one of the more interesting characters Greer has ever had the chance to inhabit. But she does give Becky a charm and depth that, well, no other actress could pull off in quite that way.

I liked the writing well enough. The pilot had a lot of clever laughs, showing a deft touch with both visual and dialogue-driven comedy. The episode opened with an amazingly prescient scene, in which Becky has to break up a fight between two students, one of whom is the school mascot (in costume). Earlier this month, the mascots of Oral Roberts University and Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis got into an on-court scrap during a game, which added another layer to the already clever bit. There is a great moment when Becky tells us that she was in the “Sound of Music” in high school opposite her crush, but we then get to see her parents’ video of the moment, including her mom noting that they can leave because she said her one line. As the end credits rolled, a funny sight gag had Becky making a comparison about how her job is like her car, just as it gets crushed by a driver’s education vehicle. I also really liked a running gag involving the Spanish-speaking janitor, who, after the Spanish teacher is fired over material found on his computer, notes (in Spanish) that he turned down the chance to replace him because, “I didn’t want anyone poking around my hard drive.”

In general, I found “Miss Guided” cute and clever, but not much more than that. However one scene gave me hope for the future. Becky, who planned the climactic high school dance, finds herself on the outside again, looking through the window as her crush, auto mechanic-turned-Spanish-teacher Tim (Kristoffer Polaha), dances with her nemesis, homecoming-queen-turned-English-teacher Lisa (Brooke Burns). It goes back and forth from poignant to funny as she is startled by one of the outsider kids who is also on the outside looking in. Even in her lowest moment, Becky masterfully makes the boy feel better about his lot in life, telling him it’s okay to be weird, while, at the same time, convincing herself of the same thing. It is nice to see that after 20 minutes or so of silliness, Becky is actually good at her job. It was also very satisfying that the moment isn’t allowed to play as sappy. Just as the feel-good aspect is setting in, and you think the scene is over, the boy asks to touch Becky’s “boobs.” And what really makes the scene is Becky’s reaction: She just smiles, completely not put off, and politely declines. In this scene, Greer gets a chance to flash a bit of the greatness she has displayed in other roles, and “Miss Guided” hints at what it can become.

I was less excited about the rest of the cast, though. Chris Parnell plays the vice principal as if he’s still doing a sketch on “Saturday Night Live.” He is way too over-the-top for a nuanced single-camera sitcom like this one. Burns and Polaha aren’t much more than pretty faces. Sure, the homecoming queen and school stud aren’t supposed to be great conversationalists, but these characters just weren’t interesting enough to keep up with Becky. I quite liked Earl Billings, though, as the jaded, monotone, can’t-be-phased principal. He provided some solid deadpan laughs.

“Miss Guided” has potential. It does, though, have the unfortunate assignment of lining up on Thursday nights against one of the two or three best sitcoms on television, “30 Rock” (as well as against the entertaining “My Name Is Earl”). With the dearth of good comedies on the air, I wish the networks would avoid putting them against each other.

“The Return of Jezebel James” may not be as good as “Miss Guided,” but I’ll be watching both. After the six years of “Gilmore Girls” Sherman-Palladino provided us with, it’s the least I can do.