The new issue of The Velvet Light Trap has the theme of Failures, Flops and False Starts and I'm pleased to have a short piece in a dossier called "Perspectives on Failure" consisting of brief articles on that theme. Other contributors include many scholars I have long admired, including some friends and blog readers. My contribution, on the short-lived Fox sit-com The Return of Jezebel James, is based on ideas I first formulated right here on this blog. I have pasted it below, with links in place of references where possible.
If you're signed into Project Muse through your institution, you also read my contribution here and the entire dossier here without bothering with any of those annoying pdf downloads. The full citation is, Michael Z. Newman, "The Return of Jezebel James," The Velvet Light Trap 64 (Fall 2009), 77-78.)
Admirers of Gilmore Girls (The WB/The CW, 2000-2007) were largely disappointed by Amy Sherman-Palladino's subsequent effort, The Return of Jezebel James, which ran for three episodes in early 2008 before the Fox network killed it. (As I write in early 2009, all seven completed episodes can be viewed online at Hulu or downloaded from iTunes.) Reviews were scathing and ratings were low when Jezebel James, a half-hour comedy starring Parker Posey and Lauren Ambrose, first aired on a Friday night in March. Among its most despised aspects was the sound of audible laughter from its studio audience. A critic for the New York Times compared it to peanut butter on pizza. It was the show's misfortune to have arrived at a moment in television history when most of the aesthetically advanced comedies had abandoned the audience laughter (real or fake) that had been part of the sitcom format since radio days and that Brett Mills calls "the convention which has traditionally most simply and effectively defined the genre" (38). It was the curse of Jezebel James to aim to be too classy, and its failure is in part a testament to the fickle arbitrariness of taste standards as they change over time.
While it has suffered a decline in mass popularity, the sitcom genre has enjoyed a creative renaissance in the aughts, largely a function of having cast aside many of its most enduring conventions. In addition to the laugh track, many sitcoms jettisoned the three-wall set, the live studio audience, the pattern of verbal setup/punchline humor, and theatrical entrances and exits. (The shorthand distinction between old and new styles is multi- versus single-camera, though "single-camera" shows like The Office might shoot with multiple cameras.) New sitcoms replace audible laughter with wacky music and ironic voice-over narration, as in Scrubs (NBC, 2001-08, ABC 2009-) and Arrested Development (Fox, 2003-06), or awkward pauses, as in The Office (NBC, 2005-). Many shows interpolate hyperclever, ultrabrief fantasy or flashback scenes that would be impossible to include when shooting in front of the traditional live audience. New sitcoms forgoing the three-wall stage would thus appeal as more cinematic and less theatrical. The absence of audience laughter would likewise signal a move away from a theatrical style that has been essential to the sitcom aesthetic throughout its history.
When Jezebel James debuted in 2008, the multicamera sitcom had not vanished from the scene. Indeed, the most commercially successful sitcoms on the networks, including CBS's Two and a Half Men (2003-) and The New Adventures of Old Christine (2006-), were shot in the multicam style. Hannah Montana (Disney Channel, 2006-) had recently launched an impressive tween brand using the multicamera sitcom as a base. But between the original premium cable shows like Entourage (HBO, 2004-) and Weeds (Showtime, 2005-), whose visual style is hard to distinguish from a prime-time drama, and the upscale, critics'-darling, single-camera network shows like 30 Rock, it was clear that the adult "quality TV" half-hour comedy had largely cast aside the cluster of conventions that had made mass-appeal hits of shows from I Love Lucy (CBS, 1951-57) to Friends (NBC, 1994-2004) in favor of something ostensibly more visually and narratively sophisticated.
It was Jezebel James's misfortune to attempt to fit into the old-style set of conventions that had worked so well for classics like Cheers (NBC, 1982-93), which Amy Sherman-Palladino named as an influence on the show. By 2008 these had become too familiar, especially after having seen them so effectively defamiliarized by a new generation of television comedies that eschewed theatricality. In many ways Jezebel James came across as aiming for aesthetic sophistication. It was a product of the same creators who had made the beloved screwball dramedy Gilmore Girls, renowned for its smarty-pants writing and engaging characters. Gilmore Girls had become many viewers' favorite, and expectations were thus high for its successor, which mimicked the Gilmore fast-paced, culturally literate verbal style. But as well, the casting of Lauren Ambrose, veteran of HBO's family melodrama Six Feet Under (HBO, 2001-05), and Parker Posey, identified so much with indie cinema, suggested that Jezebel James would be highbrow TV. The associations the creative team's previous work evoked would not seem to jibe with the conventions of the traditional sitcom, a genre wanting in cultural legitimacy.
With TV series, success and failure have so many dimensions. Shows start out weak in some respects and adjust over time. Audiences become familiar with characters and feel strong affection for them but rarely in the first few weeks of a show's airing. Pilots are notoriously unlike typical episodes, so we must be willing to stick with a show to figure out what it will really be like in the long run. Commercial and creative successes often are misaligned. After watching all seven episodes that will ever exist of Jezebel James, I found myself wishing there might have been more. I was just getting to like it. By the twelfth or fifteenth episode it might have been pretty good, and by then we would have become accustomed to its laugh track along with the rest of the show's quirks and mannerisms. Maybe eventually people would have felt as warmly toward it as they did eventually toward Cheers and Gilmore Girls. Not likely, but we will never know.
Mills, Brett. Television Sitcom. London: BFI, 2005.