No Lady Lazarus: The End of ‘Jezebel James’

To this point, I’ve primarily focused this column on the successes of the television world: hardy popular hits such as “Lost” and “24” or delicate flowers of the pay-cable hothouses like “The Wire.” But for every midseason success like “Grey’s Anatomy,” there must be at least five shows that meet the fate of “The Return of Jezebel James.” You’ve probably never heard of “Jezebel James,” and since it was cancelled last month, you probably will never hear of it again.

It’s become a part of an ever-growing panoply of ultra-fast television failures, shows that barely squeak onto the scene before they’re silenced. While TV fans hear plenty about brilliant-but-canceled gems like “Freaks and Geeks” or “Veronica Mars,” these great shows had a seemingly endless lifespan compared with those like “Jezebel James.” These are the victims of televised infanticide: they make it out of the pilot-season womb only to be dashed for good three or four episodes later. And there are more of them than you might think.

I’m not eulogizing “Jezebel James” because it was a great show. Hell, it even made me cringe a few times. What it was, however, was an example of the kind of promise that can’t be easily recouped after a network makes a rash cancellation. “Jezebel James” was a traditional three-camera sitcom created and written by Amy Sherman-Palladino, best known as the creator of “Gilmore Girls.” It starred two terrific actresses, indie darling Parker Posey (as neurotic children’s-book editor Sarah) and “Six Feet Under” daughter Lauren Ambrose (as her free-spirited sister Coco).

It had an interesting premise: Sarah, who wants a child and can’t get pregnant, enlists Coco to be a surrogate mother; hilarity, of course, ensues. It even had such talents as Dianne Wiest and Scott Cohen (“Gilmore”’s Max Medina) in supporting roles. If this is the kind of setup that gets dumped after a measly three episodes, I don’t know how anyone gets up the gumption to write situation comedy in the first place.

“Jezebel James” wasn’t without its flaws. The characters were histrionic, the laugh track was grating, and some elements just didn’t work (Ambrose’s character needed some development, and fast). But for all of its problems, “Jezebel James” was an engaging screwball piece in the “Gilmore” mode, and many of its fast and furious lines made me laugh out loud. (Posey to Ambrose: “This is a co-op [apartment building], and we’re all in this together, so you have to be nice to everyone. Oh, not her, though, we all hate her.”) Posey and Ambrose may not have made the most believable pair of sisters on the planet, but their chemistry was still engaging, and the supporting actors did a good job with what little they were given. In short, “Jezebel James” was the classic example of a new show: conflicted, imperfect, promising, trying to find its voice.

That voice, however, will never be heard. Considering all the griping network executives make about their shrinking budgets, “Jezebel James” seemed like an astonishing waste of cash, if nothing else. Eleven episodes were originally ordered; seven were produced; only three ever saw the light of day, and Fox has no plans to air the rest. With established talent both in front of and behind the show, those episodes can’t have come cheap. Yet Fox was content to air the show only on Friday nights (its support: reruns of the execrable “’Til Death”), then stomp it out as soon as it got poor ratings. Last I tuned in, no one watches network television on Friday nights. Either Fox is letting seven-year-olds program its schedule, or “Jezebel James” was dead in the water before it even got a chance. And that’s a waste of everyone’s energy and time: Sherman-Palladino’s, the actors’, the crew’s, and most of all, the viewers’.

A little experiment: Try watching the first three episodes of any comedy you consider worthwhile. Chances are, they’re not unlike “Jezebel James”: pretty terrible, but with inklings of promise. Even great comedies like “Seinfeld,” “30 Rock,” and “The Office” weren’t too quick out of the gate. Networks don’t seem to get this: they’re more than happy to immediately cast off some shows and keep others long after they’ve fizzled. The difference between what you see and what you don’t is often as much about personal politics as it is about those nebulous Nielsen numbers.

Yet, whatever the actual reason for cancellation may be, networks are always keen to blame viewers’ fickle tastes for their shows’ failings—never minding that they openly scorned the viewers in the first place. It’s probably the excuse they offered to the “Jezebel James” cast and crew before they cut them down for good. Somehow, I’ll bet, it wasn’t too comforting.

—Columnist Allie T. Pape can be reached at pape@fas.harvard.edu.