Two new network TV situation comedies show a more optimistic and positive approach to their subject matter. This reflects an increasingly strong trend in TV fiction programming.
ABC’s Miss Guided and Fox’s The Return of Jezebel James have the kind of sexually lurid subject matter we now must unfortunately expect from network TV situation comedies—but they handle this material with a critical sense and an optimistic attitude that is fresh and appealing.
Following the pattern established earlier this season by ABC’s successful, audience-grabbing Samantha Who?, the two new sitcoms feature female lead characters immersed in mad situations partially of their own devising but also reflecting the disturbed nature of contemporary America.
Jezebel James is marred by spotty writing, as the writers try too hard to be witty and often fall flat, but it has an impressive performance by Parker Posey as protagonist Sarah Tompkins, a highly successful NYC book publisher. The program also exhibits an unusually strong positive attitude toward bourgeois values. Sarah’s sister, Coco, presents herself as free spirit, but it soon becomes clear that she’s the one who’s most troubled at heart, whereas although Jezebel is by no means fully happy, she recognizes that the way to get there is to work at it.
Sarah desperately wants to have a baby, but does not want a husband. This is a central aspect of the story and a strongly evocative of the conflict of values at the center of the series: she wants the bourgeois life, but without the strings—marriage, with its obligations to care about another person and often let their needs come before one’s own—that come with it.
This longing is further frustrated by the revelation that Sarah cannot have children, because of a physical problem called Asherman’s syndrome. Interestingly, although the episode does not state it, this condition is caused by having repeated abortions. Thus in this important plot element the show subtly (indeed imperceptibly, for most people) indicates the common sense behind bourgeois values.
After finding out that she cannot conceive and bear a child, Sarah asks Coco to bear a child for her, borrowing her womb, as it were. After some initial resentment and arguing, Coco agrees, and moves into Sarah’s sumptuous apartment—all the while pouring contempt on Sarah’s bourgeois values.
The producers don’t sympathize with Coco’s derision, however. Coco shows her low moral standards by snooping in Sarah’s diary, for example, whereas Sarah does nothing like that, saying she’s willing to let Coco tell her whatever she wants about herself when she’s ready to say it.
Certainly Sarah is troubled and indulges in morally unacceptable behavior, but she seems at least to understand that there is good sense behind most of the conventions we know as good manners and good morals. Coco, by contrast, conceives herself as being above such matters (at least initially), and her life is consequently a worse mess than Sarah’s.
In addition, Sarah’s most successful project, a series of books that provides the title of the TV series, tells stories of a young heroine based on her sister’s imaginary childhood friend, Jezebel James.
Unfortunately, as noted earlier, the writing is spotty, and the complexities of Sarah’s character too often appear to be inconsistencies—it’s not clear how she can be so promiscuous sexually while so strongly wanting to enjoy traditional values. We know, of course, that it’s possible and indeed happens, but the show never really convinces us that this characer makes sense.
More sensible and appealing is ABC’s Miss Guided, a limited run series that ends tomorrow night. The central character, a high school guidance counselor named Becky Freeley (played superbly by Judy Greer), must deal with a mad society, of which the school is a microcosm, and her own shortcomings. However, both the central character and the show as a whole exude optimism and a positive outlook on life despite all the trials and tribulations. Becky’s essentially benevolent nature is rewarded at the end of the pilot episode, and she makes a difficult but morally right choice in the second episode when a new teacher she finds attractive (played by Ashton Kutcher, who is an executive producer for the show) chooses her over her archrival.
One can imagine Miss Guided returning next year, but Jezebel James has already met its doom. Thanks to a bad time slot (Friday nights) and the various problems noted above, the latter program received very poor ratings and was canceled by Fox after just three episodes.
Nonetheless, it’s important that the highly successful producer of The Gilmore Girls and the former star of That ’70s Show have put together situation comedies questioning whether bourgeois values might be best after all. It’s further evidence that the moral attitudes of TV’s creative people are becoming more skeptical of the antinomianism that has been so strong in American culture and society over the past few decades.