Why is the sitcom dying? Could it be because network executives have no confidence in their own judgment?

Fox rounded up a pile of perk and talent for The Return of Jezebel James, about a flibbertigibbet neat freak who signs her slacker sister as a surrogate mom. Then the network cut production short and shoved the show to a mid-March premiere on a Friday night, with back-to-back episodes tomorrow at 8.

The last time Fox had more than 314 viewers on a Friday night, Fox Mulder was still reading The Hardy Boys.

Lauren Ambrose, in her first sitcom role as the surrogate, seems to know more than the people who hired her. "I can't imagine that any TV comedy jelled and emerged completely cooked" after just a few episodes, she says in a phone interview.

"The show would probably be really interesting if it had a chance to blossom and grow and make more episodes."

It does take a while to get to know and like people, whether they're your next-door neighbors or the ones who come into your TV every week. TV series, comedy or drama, thrive through ongoing relationships between viewers and characters.

Jezebel James comes from Amy Sherman-Palladino, who got her start on Roseanne, and became beloved by a small but ardent fan base as the power behind Gilmore Girls. She doesn't do pudgy, buffoon husbands with cutesy wives, or pompous TV anchormen, or horn-dog bachelors, characters who have become stock sitcom fodder and need neither introduction nor development.

Instead, we get these sisters, who, admittedly, are hard to figure out, polar opposites (they even look completely different) who don't get along but who, for reasons difficult to fathom in the premiere, are entering into a very intimate relationship.

"It's timely," Ambrose says, "with an alternative family, sisters trying to find their way together and build their relationships. It has great actors, except for myself."

Modesty becomes her. Twice Emmy-nominated for HBO's Six Feet Under, where she played the off-kilter little sister, she segued to Jezebel James from glowing reviews as Juliet in last summer's New York Public Theater Shakespeare in the Park production ("girlishly arresting," swooned The Inquirer's Howard Shapiro).

After learning the reams of dialogue for that part, Ambrose says, her memory muscle was in good shape, and she had little trouble with Sherman-Palladino's notorious jam-packed scripts.

Indie queen Parker Posey, the ditzy yet paradoxically professionally successful sister, works double time to spill all her words. Sometimes, you can't understand them. Scott Cohen, who has been in more than 20 TV shows and was Lorelai Gilmore's star-crossed lover, plays Posey's boyfriend. Dianne Wiest turns up as the girls' mother.

"Now, for something completely different," Ambrose says she thought as she stuck her toe into sitcomdom. "This scared me. That's good . . . and the people they gathered to work on it were different. I felt like it was a really good fit."

Potential pours from the screen, but the premiere has plenty of problems. People seem to be uncomfortable and trying too hard, just as they do on their first day in school or on the job. By the seventh episode, which was also sent to critics, things are jelling, and the show seems on the way to beguiling. A TV critic can envision the same sort of fervent fan population - adequate, if not overflowing - that Gilmore Girls had.

Whether a network boss can see the same thing is anybody's guess, but you'd think with Fox making like Triple H in the weekly ratings smackdowns, it might have a slot or two to garner some respect and grow offbeat comedy.

"It needs a chance to grow," Ambrose says. "It really would be lovely if we got the chance."

Jonathan Storm:

The Return of Jezebel James

Tomorrow night at 8 on Fox29