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Kim Thomas
Over Under

Lauren Ambrose is following up her unforgiving role on HBO's Six Feet Under with, of all things, a sitcom. By Ken Parish Perkins

"Is there something harder than making people laugh?" asks Lauren Ambrose, the 30-year-old actress who costars with Parker Posey in Fox's newest sitcom, The Return of Jezebel James. Well, yeah, maybe there is something harder - like making people sad or making them want to wring your neck. Ambrose managed to do both of those things for audiences while also being moody, despondent, and, yes, even funny during her run as Claire Fisher on the HBO drama Six Feet Under. In the four years she spent on that show, Ambrose earned two Emmy nominations, thanks in part to her being brave enough to abandon an actor's almost instinctive need for viewers' empathy. Fisher was, you'll remember, a character who left a human foot in the locker of an ex-boyfriend without a hint of, well, oops. Yeah. That's hard.

Still, there is something to be fearful of as Ambrose takes on her new role in Jezebel James. The show stars Posey as a hard-driving, successful author who wants her slacker younger sister - played by Ambrose - to carry the child she cannot. Jezebel James has been greatly anticipated, as it marks the return of Gilmore Girls creators Amy Sherman-Palladino and Dan Palladino to TV. Like Gilmore Girls, Jezebel James features a rat-a-tat style of dialogue and a premise that's based on quirky female relationships. But unlike Gilmore Girls, Jezebel James is filmed like a traditional sitcom - before a studio audience. "Amy is interested in going back to old-school comedy, which is appealing to an actor to sign on to," Ambrose says. "She's smart and a great writer and comes from Roseanne, which was genius, and she wants to get back to her roots."

And while Ambrose says Sherman-Palladino's machine-gun dialogue doesn't bother her, she does admit to being slightly terrified at the prospect of having to be funny. She shouldn't be. Early in her roughly 10-year-old career, she knocked out several comedic roles on the big screen: Can't Hardly Wait, in 1998; and two independent films, Swimming and the well-titled Psycho Beach Party, in 2000.

The latter two of those movies also featured Ambrose's other talent - singing, something she has worked on post-Six Feet Under.

She made her Broadway debut in the Lincoln Center Theater revival of Awake and Sing! in 2006, starring alongside Mark Ruffalo. And Ambrose received glowing reviews for her star turn in New York's Shakespeare in the Park production of Romeo and Juliet last summer, just months after she and her husband, photographer Sam Handel, had welcomed their first child, Orson Halcyon Handel, into the world. It's more than worth noting that Ambrose beat out Sienna Miller for the role of Juliet.

In addition to taking on stage roles, Ambrose has followed up Six Feet Under by delivering a strikingly nuanced performance in the 2007 feature film Starting Out in the Evening.

So far, everything in Ambrose's career seems to make perfect, almost scripted, sense: small roles in indie movies, followed by a supporting role in an HBO drama, followed by star roles in stage productions, followed by a star role in a big-screen drama. And then … a sitcom? It's a brave and different choice. And even though Ambrose says she wishes everything in her career had been perfectly planned out, she admits that "it never really works out that way. "Things that come your way are often surprising, like this sitcom," she says. "You can't make any plans."

Digging Up the Past

With Lauren Ambrose and the funereal Six Feet Under off HBO, the network looks to draw viewers by resurrecting a historical figure.

NEW TV SHOW: John Adams, HBO

SOUNDS KIND OF LIKE: That dead president guy from history class.

BUT IT'S DIFFERENT BECAUSE: Adams, as seen in this miniseries based on the compelling and Pulitzer Prize-winning Adams biography by David McCullough, is actually more than a white-wigged answer to a multiple-choice question. (By the way, the answer is C. The second U.S. president.) In this seven-episode miniseries, Adams is shown as being a respected Massachusetts attorney by day and a hard-driving revolutionary and passionately romantic married man by night.

PEOPLE YOU'LL RECOGNIZE: Paul Giamatti is convincing as Adams. (It turns out that our second president also hated Merlot. Who knew?) Laura Linney is Abigail Adams. Adams's longtime rival Thomas Jefferson is played with surprising sneer by Stephen Dillane (who was Leonard Woolf in The Hours). St. Elsewhere's Dr. Jack Morrison, David Morse, is George Washington. And Justin Theroux - who had a brief but memorable run as Joe on Six Feet Under and who as a Washington, D.C., native may have this presidential-history stuff in his blood - plays John Hancock.

AMERICAN HISTORY IS CHEAPER THAN ROMAN HISTORY: You’ve got to give HBO credit for trying its hand with another historical epic. After all, the network was burned by the intensely expensive and lightly watched series Rome, whose expansive set outside the Eternal City helped drive the cost of the series to a reported $100 million. In creating John Adams, HBO went cheaper — and more authentic. It filmed much of the series on the streets of Colonial Williamsburg.

WHEN TO SEE IT: It begins airing on HBO and the network’s related channels March 16, and it runs through April 27. — John Ross