To start, the premise of The Return of Jezebel James -- infertility -- isn’t exactly a knee-slapper.
Can two single sisters share a womb without driving each other crazy?
As I was watched two episodes of Amy Sherman-Palladino’s new sitcom, The Return of Jezebel James, just one line made me laugh aloud. Not a grand beginning for a comedy, especially since the line was not intended to be funny. Children’s book editor Sarah (Parker Posey) has just taken her lover, Marcus (Scott Cohen), to her apartment for the first time. Impressed by the loft’s endless square footage, expansive terrace, and sparking skyline views, he asks, “How can you afford all this? Are you pole-dancing on the side?” Sarah cheerfully responds, “It’s Brooklyn, baby!”
Ha, riiight. Clearly the writers haven’t checked the real estate market in Brooklyn in the last five years, where the going rate for palatial lofts (even fixer-uppers) is about a bijillion dollars. But if sitcoms aren’t required to be realistic, they should be funny. Most of the jokes in this one fizzle and evaporate, as much as the tired laugh track tries to convince us otherwise.
To start, the show’s premise -- infertility -- isn’t exactly a knee-slapper. After 30something career gal Sarah learns she can’t conceive, she asks her estranged sister, Coco (Lauren Ambrose), to carry a child for her. In contrast to Sarah, the younger Coco is broke, without direction, and crashing at a friend’s cramped and grungy apartment. Sarah insists Coco will “enjoy” the surrogacy experience, as well as the lavish compensation she can provide: cash, a guest bedroom with a private bathroom and a walk-in closet, maid service... “[You think I’ll] enjoy being knocked up with your baby, like I’m an incubator?!” Coco explodes. “An incubator with TiVo,” Sarah corrects.
Groan-worthy one-liners like these make Sarah -- allegedly desperate to have children -- seem glib at best, unsympathetic at worst. By centering their show on a surrogacy arrangement, Sherman-Palladino and co. may be attempting to put a “fresh” or “relevant” spin on what’s essentially an Odd Couple-type pairing. But this is dicey subject matter (especially for those viewers who have struggled to become pregnant or know someone who has), and at times the tone seems blasé, even offensive.
Consider the money. The pilot episode makes clear that Coco agrees to the arrangement not only out of sympathy and love for her sister, but also to escape her own dire financial straits. When Sarah and Coco hammer out the legal details of their arrangement in a later episode, the exact fee is not specified. Since Sarah insists on dropping $5,000 alone on Coco’s maternity clothes, we can assume the sisters are discussing a serious chunk of change. The compensation comes at a price, however. According to the contract, Coco would be legally obligated to follow the medical guidelines set for expecting mothers: no heavy lifting, no nitrate-laced foods, no unprotected sex “with losers.”
The arrangement points out the disparity between the sisters’ means and the options that wealth affords. Sarah believes surrogacy is “like a job,” but under terms of this employment, she is angling to be the boss of Coco's body. If their roles were reversed (i.e., if the cash-strapped Coco were the one having trouble conceiving), she would have far fewer avenues to pursue than her sister does.
After she learns about the contractual restrictions, Coco bristles and soon the negotiation devolves into bickering and petty name-calling. The show frames their fight as a matter of mere sibling dysfunction, but this scene introduces some sticky questions about class dynamics and reproductive freedom before summarily dismissing them with jokes. An hour-long dramatic format may have served this fraught material better. Or maybe a feature-length movie: in April, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler will tackle a similar theme in their upcoming movie, Baby Mama. Perhaps they've figured out a way to make it funny.