Bad from its birth

Viewers can learn a lot from shows they shouldn't watch. The Return of Jezebel James on Fox is a prime example and, as a bonus, it illustrates how networks do business. (Badly.)

This series was one of those classic looks-great-on-paper ideas that goes horribly wrong. Take Amy Sherman-Palladino, acclaimed creator of gilmore girls, and add two wonderful actresses: indie movie queen Parker Posey and Six Feet Under alum ­Lauren Ambrose. Can't fail, right?

See first paragraph above.

To begin with, although gilmore girls had a wonderful early run, it suffered steep creative declines brought on, one can assume pretty confidently, from Sherman-Palladino believing too much of her press. A gifted writer of snarky, fast-paced comedy but, more important, blessed with Lauren Graham as a lead actress, Sherman-Palladino was able to make gilmore girls a real revelation on The WB in 2000. But the more successful the series became, and the more acclaim Sherman-Palladino got, the worse the show got.

But in the TV business, once you're a talent, you're almost always a talent. So Fox liked Sherman-Palladino's script for The Return of Jezebel James and then, incredibly, the filmed pilot as well.

That pilot was to air earlier this week after American Idol, which would have given it a huge boost. Instead, the pilot will air Friday. That's not altogether bad news for the show because women are the target of this series, and Friday nights are geared toward women.

The problem is that not many women will want to come back after seeing the pilot. The first 30 minutes are a complete mess. The pilot also is pointless because by the second episode (at least the one sent to critics), everything's different. The main hook is there — Sarah (Posey), a children's book editor, can't have a child, so she asks her estranged sister, Coco (Ambrose), to carry it for her — but most other details vanish.

For example, Sarah appears to work for a company owned by a semi-grumpy woman with a cute granddaughter; in the second episode, she works for HarperCollins. Also in the pilot, Sarah lives in a cramped, homey place; in the second episode, she lives in a huge, hip loft. In the pilot, we meet Sarah's ”no strings attached,“ ”no talking about personal issues“ friend Marcus (Scott Cohen), who might be a lawyer; in the next episode, he'll be Sarah's ”boyfriend“ andher co-worker.

There are some positives, though: The second episode sent to critics is much better than the pilot, which upgrades the show to watchable, but not exactly interesting.

The problem appears to be that Sherman-Palladino wrote and directed the pilot. In it, she manages to make Posey chew more scenery and act more painfully daft than anyone could imagine, given Posey's many creative film triumphs.

The Posey element is rectified, thankfully, in the second episode, in which she's more likable, funnier, less scattered and better able to deliver the goods.

The presence of Ambrose as Coco is a welcome relief in the late minutes of the pilot, and she continues to be strong in the second episode. Unfortunately, that's not enough — mostly because the pilot does immeasurable damage to one's willingness to return.

It's tempting to think that if Fox had just redone or killed the pilot, the fixes in the second episode would make a better show. The tonal shift is remarkable, with Posey funnier and more confident, Ambrose playing the little sister as a slacker counter to Posey's uptight, successful editor. That's the hook, is it not? Two very different sisters who have barely spoken through the years are brought together in this contrived birthing situation. Not wholly original, but Posey and Ambrose could nail the material if it were right.

But it's not, and The Return of Jezebel James never connects.