On paper, "The Return of Jezebel James," which premieres on Fox tonight, has so much going for it. It's the brainchild of Amy Sherman-Palladino, who gave us the still-mourned "Gilmore Girls." It explores the little-known yet highly fraught world of children's fiction that was so fun in "Elf." It stars two lovable and highly gifted actors: former indie picture "It" girl Parker Posey as Sarah Tompkins, a tightly-wound children's fiction editor, and Lauren Ambrose, who rocked so many worlds on "Six Feet Under," as her sullen and boho sister, Coco. (Coco! It has a character named Coco!) They are brought reluctantly together in one apartment, a la "The Odd Couple," a tried but true construct made modern with a surrogacy twist -- Sarah, who cannot conceive, hires Coco to have a baby for her. And, in case you need extra sprinkles on your sundae, Dianne Wiest plays their mother.
And yet upon viewing the pilot and an early episode, it is impossible not to feel a little ripped off. Like getting the Tiffany box, with the white satin bow, and opening it to find . . . a Starbucks gift card. For 10 bucks.
There are worse gifts you could get, sure, and there are worse shows than "Jezebel James," though Fox apparently doesn't think so, having cut its initial 13-episode order and choosing to premiere it on the second deadest night of the week (Saturday isn't even a possibility anymore). The problem is that from these folks you expect a fascinating female lead, but you get instead every uptight, cellphone-clenching, relationship-avoiding, food-issue-riven working woman you've ever seen (and never met).
From the moment Posey appears on screen, yammering into a cellphone about notes her assistant has made to her about what to wear and spilling her back story to a neighbor kid collecting money for baseball uniforms -- her husband has left her, she doesn't care and no, she didn't "make him gay" -- Sarah feels as empty and echoing as her sofaless bedroom. And since she is the center of the show, this is a rather immediate problem.
Over the years, Posey has proved herself capable of radiating warmth and likability from behind myriad character tics and eccentricities, but, like the viewer, she seems at sea here. She dutifully hits all the marks -- she talks really fast because she's multitasking, is perpetually irritated because she's a perfectionist, and has a frosty self-awareness of these things because it's hip to be self-aware. As written, Sarah is more a walking Sunday style column than a recognizable human being, much less a recognizably Parker Posey being. And her irritation quickly grows, well, irritating.
Strangely -- which is to say, impossibly -- all Sarah wants is to have a child. (We are supposed to buy this because she seems to have a friendly rapport with a co-worker's grandchild.) When she finds out she cannot conceive, she reaches out to Coco, a young woman so rudderless she is sleeping on a shelf in a Chinese restaurant. Still, Sarah wants Coco to carry a child for her. To which, after a little sniping and potshots, Coco agrees. She does so because Sarah has named a character in a book series Jezebel James and Jezebel James is/was Coco's imaginary friend. Which is, apparently, as good a reason as any to carry a child for your crazy-nuts sister.
Now, I realize that this is a situation comedy and absurdity is part of the production value but let me state for the record: Give me a break.
All evidence to the contrary, the show has the potential of being very funny, but only if the writers can choose subtlety over shtick even a quarter of the time. For a start, it would be nice if Sarah lightened up enough for any thinking person to believe she wants a child -- looking mistily at a co-worker's granddaughter doesn't cut it, no matter how much exposition you feel you have to jam into a pilot. The poor baby would starve to death while Sarah was checking her e-mail, and frankly so will we.
'The Return of Jezebel James'
When: 8 to 9 tonight
Rating: TV-PG DL (may be unsuitable for young children with advisories for coarse language and suggestive dialogue)