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What Killed 'Jezebel James': The Timeslot, Laughtrack & Parker Posey

Andrew Payne Andrew Payne
March 26th, 2008 9:24am EDT
Jezebel JamesI suppose Jezebel James only wanted to stay for a short return. After a mere three episodes, and ratings that made "Arrested Development" look like "American Idol," FOX dropped the ax on what was once its hotly-anticipated sitcom "Jezebel James."

At the network up fronts back in May 2007, "James" was highly lauded and seen by FOX as a potential tent-pole sitcom around which an entire evening of programming could be built. It seemed like a surefire hit when the series received a full 13-episode order right off the bat and was slated to debut in the coveted timeslot following "American Idol."

Somewhere along the way, however, the plan for launching "James" into the stratosphere was scrapped in favor of dumping it on Friday nights at 8 p.m. where it had no chance of being watched by the young and hip female audience for which it was designed.

Why FOX did this is completely mystifying. This series had a tremendous pedigree with a beloved writer at the helm (Amy Sherman-Palladino, creator of Gilmore Girls) and two dynamite actresses (Parker Posey and Lauren Ambrose) in the leads. Seems like an easy show to make into a hit, and one that should have had quality oozing from every scene.

Jezebel James

So what happened? How did a show with every single piece in place to succeed end up making "Emily's Reasons Why Not" look like a runaway hit?

The obvious culprit for its quick cancellation was its timeslot. No show aimed at an audience below the age of 75 has any chance of succeeding on Friday evenings. But FOX has to know that. There's no way they could have thought this show had Popsicle's chance in the desert of being a success, otherwise they'd have given it a proper launch.

So the proper question to ask isn't why did "The Return of Jezebel James" get cancelled so quickly (its timeslot and subsequent low ratings are the obvious reasons), but why didn't FOX give this show any chance?

It's hard to find a justifiable reason because it really wasn't a bad show. It was certainly better than both "'Til Death" and "Back to You." It was certainly very offbeat, but that's worked for several FOX shows like "That 70's Show" and "Married with Children." There was, however, something that just wasn't right about "Jezebel."

The format is probably most to blame for "James" feeling a bit off during its brief run. Sherman-Palladino's dialogue is very funny, but it just isn't jokey enough to make a laugh track seem suitable. The result was something very similar to the spiteful canned laughter Aaron Sorkin added to the first season of "Sports Night," except unintentional.

This show would have flourished in an hour-long dramedy format similar to "Gilmore Girls." This would have allowed the creator to play up the sisterly relationship and have it form the center of the show, much in the same way the mother-daughter relationship was the core of her previous series.

The other glaring issue with "Jezebel James" was Parker Posey. There's no kind way to say this, but Posey was simply awful. It could be that Lauren Graham didn't receive enough credit for her deft ability to breezily handle Sherman-Palladino's Pinter-esque dialogue, or maybe Posey just isn't cut out to perform with such a rapid cadence.

Acting is usually the last thing to go wrong with any professional production, but in the case of Parker Posey she made it the first. It's hard to quantify the impact a truly bad lead performance can have on a television series, but Posey single-handedly made parts of this quite grating. She spoke in a child-like sing-songy voice, delivering fast-paced lines with the urgency of a Teamster returning from his lunch break. The character of Sarah Tomkins was written as a fastidious, hard-charging businesswoman, but Posey turned her into a total drip who seemed incapable of leading the life presented onscreen.

It's very frustrating to see a show with so much going for it capsize under the weight of just a few flaws. Had Sherman-Palladino been able, or willing, to produce "James" as an hour-long dramedy with someone like, say, Jenna Elfman (seriously, have you ever seen her and Lauren Graham in the same room?) in the lead alongside Lauren Ambrose, this show might have flourished as a worthy successor to "Gilmore Girls."

Instead, we will be left with only three episodes of series exhibiting a lot of frustrating potential.

Story by Andrew Payne
Starpulse contributing writer