Jenna Elfman back in 1998.
Jenna Elfman back in 1998. Contributed

Where did it all go wrong for Jenna Elfman?

IT MAY seem hard to believe, but it's been almost 20 years since Jenna Elfman first got TV viewers' attention as free-spirited yoga instructor Dharma Finkelstein in Dharma & Greg, which debuted in 1997.

It wasn't Elfman's first series; in 1996, she was on the short-lived sitcom Townies. But as Dharma, Elfman showed what she was capable of when given the right material. She won a Golden Globe in 1999 for Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Series - Comedy or Musical, and also picked up three Emmy nominations for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series during the show's five season run.

"Elfman was a big part of why I stuck [with the show]," says entertainment writer Will Harris, who writes for The A.V. Club and

"She was cute and goofy, but not so goofy that she couldn't credibly shift from cute to sexy during the more serious moments."

More than anything, Elfman was approachable and the perfect yin to the uptight yang of Thomas Gibson's character Greg Montgomery, who fell in love with Dharma despite the disapproval of his old-money parents. She was one of the prototypes of the "Manic Pixie Dream Girl", ten years before Nathan Rabin coined the phrase.

Jenna Elfman with Thomas Gibson Dharma and Greg.
Jenna Elfman with Thomas Gibson Dharma and Greg. News Limited

But since the Chuck Lorre sitcom ended in 2002, Elfman hasn't been able to catch a break. Not only has a burgeoning film career gone south - I've got two words for you: Krippendorf's Tribe - but every series in which she's been cast has been a failure, both critically and with audiences.

Including the recently-debuted Imaginary Mary, Elfman has top-lined five series since playing Dharma. And it looks like her post-Dharma streak won't be broken with her latest series; reviews have been dismal and its first airing in its regular Tuesday slot in the US only attracted about 3.5 million viewers (very low by US standards).

So what's gone wrong for Elfman? Here are a few factors to consider:


In a couple of her failed sitcoms, 2006's Courting Alex and 2009's Accidentally on Purpose, she plays hard-charging career women who have to deal with issues in their personal lives - in the former show, a father (Dabney Coleman) who wants her to settle down with the "right" man and in the latter, a pregnancy that was the result of a one-night-stand. It felt like, in both sitcoms, writers seemed to go against the type Elfman had set on D&G; instead of quirky, they thought she could play a more straightforward role and have her comedic skills make up the personality difference.

"I think she's talented and can be funny and charming, though she's talented in such a precise, narrow range of dry adorability that she has to be cast JUST right," says Phillip Deyss-Nugent, who has written for Uproxx, The AV Club and Critics at Large.

In her two most recent attempts, 2012's 1600 Penn and 2014's Growing Up Fisher, she plays harried and overwhelmed mothers, both of which didn't fit her, either. Even as the First Lady in 1600 Penn, she seemed out of place trying to keep things together as her kids seemed to have their run of the White House. While we can see Elfman being a great mum to her two IRL children, that experience just didn't come across in her performance.

The cast of 1600 Penn: (l-r) Benjamin Stockham as Xander, Martha MacIsaac as Becca (seated), Bill Pullman as President Dale Gilchrist (seated), Amara Miller as Marigold, Josh Gad as Skip, Jenna Elfman as Emily Gilchrist (seated) and Andre Holland as Marshall Malloy.
The cast of 1600 Penn: (l-r) Benjamin Stockham as Xander, Martha MacIsaac as Becca (seated), Bill Pullman as President Dale Gilchrist (seated), Amara Miller as Marigold, Josh Gad as Skip, Jenna Elfman as Emily Gilchrist (seated) and Andre Holland as Marshall Malloy. Contributed


If there is a trend about most of Elfman's shows, is that their networks didn't have a ton of confidence in them; four of Elfman's five post-D&G sitcoms debuted in mid-season. None of the shows have been outright bad, per se, but they have been disappointing and/or unmemorable.

For instance, despite the presence of Josh Gad in the cast and the writers' room, 1600 Penn was stunningly unfunny. And Growing Up Fisher was boosted by the gruff presence of J.K. Simmons, who was coming off his Oscar-winning performance in Whiplash. While that show was funny at times - Simmons and Elfman played divorced parents trying to find their way as single parents - it still never resonated with audiences.

"I thought both shows seemed plausible, from a distance, until you tried to watch them, and she was far from the most talented performer on either of them, though now I can't remember a single thing she did on either show," says Deyss-Nugent.

Imaginary Mary comes closer to taking advantage of Elfman's talents; even though her character of Alice is a hard-charging owner of a PR agency who had a crappy family life as a kid, Adam F. Goldberg, David Guarascio and Patrick Osborne have written her as just awkward enough to not know how to handle being in a relationship with Ben (Stephen Schneider), who has three kids.

The show had potential to be a decent comedy about a person in her 40s dealing with having an instant family when the idea of family is foreign to her, but it's pretty much derailed by the presence of the title character (voiced by Rachel Dratch), the childhood imaginary friend Alice dredges back up to help her cope. The CGI furball adds nothing except unfunny snark that makes the show more of a wall of noise than anything else.

Jenna Elfman in Imaginary Mary.
Jenna Elfman in Imaginary Mary. Contributed


Let's face facts: some showrunners just know how to write for certain actors. Just ask all of the folks who are making a mint on The Big Bang Theory or the person who shines up Allison Janney's Emmys from Mom; Lorre isn't the current king of sitcoms for nothing. He and his team know how to use the talents of the people they have instead of trying to shoehorn people into the roles they've written.

"Apparently one of [Lorre's] other career accomplishments is that he's seemingly the only one capable of writing a long-running sitcom for Jenna Elfman," jokes Harris.


This is why Elfman keeps getting shows, 15 years after her hit sitcom ended. Fans of Dharma & Greg, which stayed in syndication and on cable for a number of years after its original run, recall how original Elfman's performance was. Some of those fans have landed their own TV series, or are network executives who fell in love with her when they were teenagers; either way, they think they're the ones who can recapture the magic.

"She still looks remarkably similar to the way she looked when she was doing Dharma & Greg, and a lot of people watched it, which means that they still recognise her immediately," says Harris.

"I'm sure that instant recognition factor goes a long way."

So, like that pitcher who loses 20 games on a bad team because he's too good to take out of the rotation, Jenna Elfman and her fans should take solace in the fact that, after two decades, she's still good enough to keep getting jobs. Just needs the right job to come along. Does she need to play a middle-aged version of Dharma? Absolutely not. But if she can play someone as intriguing as Alice in Imaginary Mary without being dragged down by a distracting cartoon co-star, it'll be a good start.

Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn't kid himself: he's a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon,,, Fast Company's Co.Create and elsewhere.

This article was originally published on The Decider

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