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TV Series Review

In Fox's new sitcom The Return of Jezebel James, children's book editor Sarah Tompkins (Parker Posey) seems to be living her dream. Single, driven and particular, Sarah gets what she wants when she wants it. So when she notices her ticking biological clock, this successful metropolitan thirtysomething decides it's time to accessorize with a baby. Except her body won't cooperate. She has a condition that makes it impossible to conceive.

Enter Coco, Sarah's younger sister (Lauren Ambrose). Not quite homeless (she's sleeping on a friend's couch), Coco is a clichéd Gen-X slacker. Despite years of estrangement, Sarah concludes that Coco could be a surrogate mother for her. Coco's response? "A living being will be growing inside of me, like Alien? ... No." Little sis agrees only when she learns that Sarah named a series of kiddie books after Coco's childhood imaginary friend, Jezebel James.

This is the latest project from Amy Sherman-Palladino, the creator of Gilmore Girls. Just as that show revolved around a complicated mother-daughter relationship, so this dramatic sitcom explores the knotty bond between extraordinarily different sisters.

Sherman-Palladino's style is evident in the way Jezebel's stars exchange repartee one moment (including occasional mild profanities and misuses of God's name) and reveal emotional vulnerability the next. When Coco resists the idea of being "knocked up with your baby, like I'm an incubator," Sarah breaks down and admits her reason for asking: "I'm broken. My insides aren't working properly."

Despite some poignant moments, however, Sherman-Palladino's latest take on family is awash in problematic attitudes toward sexuality. Neither Sarah nor Coco bats an eye at the fact that the other might be having casual sex. It's simply assumed. Other sexual content has included references to homosexuality, pole dancing and condoms. We've even observed Sarah and her current beau, Marcus, in bed together.

While Jezebel isn't as sexually preoccupied as, say, Sex and the City, the attitudes on display aren't much different. It never questions characters' self-centered pursuit of sex, nor has it comment-ed on whether Sarah's desire to raise a child alone is healthy. It's simply an itch she needs to scratch. Never mind how her frenetic lifestyle and inability to commit to a man might impact the baby she wants her sister to carry for her.

These days, a single woman having sex on her terms and contemplating raising a child solo doesn't even stir cultural debate. It simply gets labeled a "non-traditional family," as if that moniker exempts anyone from challenging the wisdom of such an arrangement. But families should challenge it. And discuss it. Because left unquestioned, Fox would have Coco's peers believe that love-hate kindred connections and the decision to bravely satisfy selfish urges are the noblest of virtues.

Episodes Reviewed: Mar. 12, April 11, 2008

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Adam R. Holz

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