Written by Musgo Del Jefe
The list of great female comedians that can carry a TV sitcom is short and almost dead today. But their success is usually spectacular or at least notable. The genre brings to mind the brilliance of I Love Lucy or The Mary Tyler Moore Show of the TVLand distant past. Or maybe there's still a Nick-At-Nite memory of the fun that both Roseanne and The Ellen Show brought to our screens in the Nineties. What each of these shows had in common was the lack of a gimmick. Each had a home or work setting in a "normal" (usually Midwest) location and played the comedy off the everyday situations of friends and family.
But it's now 2008 and every show needs a hook - something that's easy to tease and will draw viewers to a sitcom genre that's already in shambles. Samantha Who? starts the "Pilot" episode with a premise that can be encapsulated before the first commercial break. Samantha from Chicago has been hit by a car, spent eight days in a coma, and has retrograde amnesia, forgetting everyone including her mom, dad, best friend and boyfriend. Obviously, the comedy will generally stem from storylines featuring her lack of memory.
It's great to see Christina Applegate starring on network TV again. It's easy to forget how easily she played Kelly Bundy on Married With Children with some really crappy scripts the last few years of their ten-year run. But what really showed her chops as a comedic actress was the often forgotten Jesse. This show starred Applegate and ran in the after-Friends spot on NBC from 1998 to 2000. Despite great reviews the show couldn't bring in the kind of ratings that NBC needed in that Thursday spot and was cancelled. It was only a matter of time before she found the right material to get back into comedic television.
The show quickly reminds you of at least two other contemporary shows which could be an issue as the series continues into its Second Season. The first two episodes - "Pilot" and "The Job" run parallel to the set up of My Name Is Earl. Like Earl, Samantha is a bad person - evil to her co-workers, greedy and selfish. Once she is hit by a car (same as Earl) she becomes a new person (hence the name Samantha Newly). Instead of karma, Samantha has amnesia, but like Earl, her quest is to undo the bad things that Evil Sam did in her past life. In Earl, some of the best scenes are the flashbacks to "Evil Earl." In Samantha Who?, almost every episode during the First Season features a flashback as a storytelling device where Samantha "remembers" something that is usually related to the main story. It's a nice device when used right - like in "Hypnotherapist" when Samantha is convinced that she's adopted, the flashback memory is timed perfectly. When it's used in almost every episode, it becomes predictable like her conflict with the bride in "The Wedding." Samantha's narration throughout the series very closely fills the same role as Earl's voiceover in his show.
The show is dominated by Samantha and her two friends - Andrea (Jennifer Esposito who I recognized from Spin City) and Dena (Melissa McCarthy from The Gilmore Girls). Andrea is the bad influence, co-worker, and bar friend who loves the Evil Sam. Dena is the childhood friend who only comes back into Samantha's life after the accident. Each plays their role well and it's like Sam having the little Angel and the little Devil on each shoulder. But when you put the three together the series often steers itself straight down the Sex In The City alley. It's too easy and a little lazy for the show to try to fill this relationship-based show genre. And too often it tries to with too little commitment. "The Hockey Date" shows how this just doesn't work. In this episode, Sam is getting back into dating after realizing that her old boyfriend is not going to take her back. The episode has a funny concept of her new boyfriend taking her to a hockey game without realizing that Evil Sam's been banned from the stadium for impersonating a handicapped person to get better seats. By concentrating on the problems that causes to the relationship, you lose the comedy gold of her trying to get into a stadium that she's been banned from.
The basic issue with the premise is rules. In My Name Is Earl, the rules are made very clear from the start on how Earl is going to cross someone off his list. In Samantha Who?, the rules of her amnesia aren't clear and often used however is convenient to the story. Sometimes it's funny - like when Sam doesn't remember she's afraid of elevators or when she doesn't remember that she was having an affair with her boss. Other times it's just confusing like when she doesn't remember not to put foil in a microwave. The further the series evolves, I forsee the amnesia becoming less an influence on the storylines.
The best episode of the season had little to do with her amnesia. In "The Restraining Order", Sam encounters a man that runs away from her screaming. It turns out that Evil Sam was cruel to him and he had to have a restraining order on her. The more that Good Sam tries to convince him that she's a changed person, the more trouble she gets into. There's a clever use of "We Got The Beat" by The Go-Gos and the lesson learned helps her refocus on getting back with her boyfriend.
The supporting cast is solid. Sam's old boyfriend, Todd (Barry Watson) is a fresh character that doesn't just fall back in love with Sam. They've done a great job of playing his character as equal parts friend and boyfriend so that they can go either way with him in the future seasons. Regina and Howard (Jean Smart and Kevin Dunn) are fun as Sam's parents but their roles have been relatively stereotypical through the First Season.
It's hard to tell where this series will go in the future. It's Monday night scheduling will make it tough to last if ABC isn't truly committed. Ratings were much better until it was moved back 30 minutes where it goes up against Two and a Half Men (the highest rated sitcom on TV the past few seasons). With Heroes and Monday Night Football as competition on the other networks, it has the advantage on paper of being the only show aimed at females on at this time. I think that Applegate can easily carry this show but it has to find a better core. Let Samantha exist in her Chicago world with a quirky family and odd set of friends. It doesn't have to be about relationships and it doesn't always have to be about the differences between Evil Sam and Good Sam. But that takes a level of trust in the viewers that networks don't typically show. The show about an identity crisis ultimately suffers from an identity crisis.
The DVD set comes with the expected Bonus features - a blooper reel, a couple deleted scenes and commentary on only one episode. I'd like to have heard a little more from the creators and Christina on their vision for the show. If this doesn't end up being the "one" for Miss Applegate, I'm not worried she's going to have another shot down the road.