Thursday, October 18, 2007

“Samantha Who?” - Not Sure, But It’s a Lot of Fun Finding Out

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

The desire to have a “do-over” with one’s life is a common emotion. (If your life is so great that you wouldn’t change a thing, please move away from the rest of us. It’s for your own safety.) The new ABC half-hour comedy “Samantha Who?” (ABC Mondays at 9:30) taps into this nearly universal feeling to great effect.

Samantha (Christina Applegate, in the role of her life) is a nasty, materialistic, condescending, philandering, nearly friendless alcoholic, but when we first meet her, she is a sweet, confused woman who awakens from an eight-day coma with complete retrograde amnesia. She remembers nothing about her life and doesn’t recognize any of the people around her, which of course also means she has no idea who to trust or listen to. The first person she (and we) meet is her selfish, manipulative mother, Regina (the always great Jean Smart), who is videotaping a plea to “Extreme Makeover Home Edition” to remodel her house because her daughter is in a coma.

Samantha moves home with Regina and her father, Howard (Kevin Dunn), an oblivious jokester, until her self-described best friend, Andrea (Jennifer Esposito) shows up and informs her she hasn’t been in touch with her family in two years. Andrea is our first clue that the sweet Samantha we are watching is not the Samantha everyone knows, as Andrea is also a nasty, materialistic, condescending snake. Andrea is the type of character who hands a drink to an unwitting Samantha event though she knows she is an alcoholic, and after Samantha finds an Alcoholics Anonymous 30-day chip in her purse and storms off angrily, all Andrea can manage is, “Worst 30 days of my life.”

Samantha then moves in to the apartment she shared with her boyfriend, Todd (Barry Watson), who seems uneasy about being around her. Andrea drags Samantha to a party for someone named Rene, and that’s when the stuff hits the fan, and Samantha gets a glimpse of who she was pre-coma. She finds out that Rene is a guy she was sleeping with, even though he is engaged to another woman (he tries to arrange a tryst with her for the night of his wedding). Samantha also finds out that Dena (Melissa McCarthy, channeling the ditsiest side of her Sookie from the “Gilmore Girls”), who has portrayed herself as a close friend of Samantha’s, hasn’t been close to her since seventh grade (when Samantha got cool and Dena did not).

When Samantha confesses her infidelity to Todd, he is ecstatic, since, he reveals to her, he dumped her minutes before she was hit by a car. In a flashback to the day they met in a coffee shop (she stole his latte rather than wait for her own), we get to see the old Sam for the first time, and the difference is shocking. Applegate, who since her breakthrough on “Married With Children” has stumbled through a career of failed TV series (“Jesse”) and second banana roles in lame movies (“Surviving Christmas,” “The Sweetest Thing”), has found the right role for her talents. She fully inhabits both the “good Sam” and the “bad Sam,” so much so that she seems to change physically depending on which side of her personality she is inhabiting.

In the only misstep of the pilot, Sam gets sage advice from the cliche of the strong, silent African-American blue-collar worker (in this case a doorman), Frank (a sorely miscast Tim Russ, the Vulcan Tuvok on “Star Trek: Voyager”), who, using philosophical prose (that she needs explained to her more specifically, which is no shame, since he’s not making much sense), guides her to move back home with her folks, which she does.

“Samantha Who?” is a single-camera sitcom that truly both needs and takes advantage of the single-camera format. (Single-camera shows, like “Scrubs” and “30 Rock,” are shot like movies, as opposed to the more staged, multi-camera approach of traditional sitcoms like “Seinfeld” and “Friends”). The comedy is not your classic set-up/punch yuk-fest. Despite the high-concept premise and over-the-top side characters, Samantha (and the show, for that matter) have more nuance and heart than you would expect to find in a typical sitcom.

That is not to say, of course, that the show isn’t funny. Because at times, it is laugh-out-loud hilarious. Samantha’s voice over is very entertaining, featuring clever comparisons of good and bad things about having amnesia. Her reaction to her clothes, including picking up a very small, slinky dress and asking, “I have a daughter?”, was both funny and revealing. And, in an uproarious, uncomfortable tour de force set piece, a beleaguered Samantha, after getting kicked out by Todd, ends up at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, where she proceeds to interrupt the gathering, vent, and eat various desserts, before being thrown out by the group leader. Any show that has the audacity to stage a scene that involves the lead character getting booted out of an AA meeting is, in my book, off to a good start.

This is a show that has the goods to stick around a while. The writing is sharp, the cast is great, and the result is entertaining and funny. In a time where half-hour comedies are struggling to survive, it is especially gratifying to find such a high-quality comedy that works. (The show drew 15 million viewers on its first outing, so it seems that America agrees, although I hope the numbers are not just a product of the cushy post-“Dancing With the Stars” time slot.)

“Samantha Who?” is the last of the five new shows I was looking forward to seeing to air, and it is one of my two favorites from the bunch (along with “Aliens in America”; “Carpoolers” doesn’t work, “Private Practice” was a let down, and I like “Pushing Daisies”). Unlike so many new offerings by the networks, I doubt we will all experience amnesia a year from now, trying to remember that “Samantha Who?” ever existed. No do-over necessary on my decision to watch this show. It’s a keeper.