Thursday, November 20, 2008

"Samantha Who?" and "The Big Bang Theory" Are Very Different, but Both Deliver Laughs

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

"Samantha Who?" (ABC, Mondays at 9:30 Eastern) and "The Big Bang Theory" (CBS, Mondays at 8:00 Eastern) have a couple of things in common. They are both sitcoms in their second seasons, and both air on Monday nights. But beyond those surface facts, the two programs are different in nearly every way. Well, except one: They're both funny.

"Samantha Who?" is an ambitious, single-camera comedy that burst onto the scene last season with high ratings, mainly thanks to its cushy scheduling slot after "Dancing with the Stars." The high-concept premise follows Sam (Christina Applegate) as she wakes up from a coma with amnesia (she was hit by a car), only to discover that she was a mean, boozing, selfish, cut-throat workaholic before her injury. Determined to be a better person, she sets out to do better, which isn't easy, since she is surrounded by a motley crew of potential obstacles: her manipulative, trophy-wife-gone-to-seed mother, Regina (Jean Smart); her fellow barracuda best friend Andrea (Jennifer Esposito); and her awkward, Newfie-loving, terminally uncool childhood best friend Dena (Melissa McCarthy), who used Sam's amnesia as a way of reinserting herself into Sam's life.

The first season of "Samantha Who?" was clever and ambitious, and Applegate showed a great comic touch, especially in essentially playing two characters: the current "good Sam," and, in flashbacks, the old "bad Sam." (You can read the review I wrote last year here.) As last season came to a close, "Samantha Who?" had cemented a place on ABC's schedule, and I had high hopes for the future.

Which is why the season premiere was such a disappointment. The episode turned on a predictable and less-than-funny dance contest that Regina wanted to win over her long-time rival. She dumps her delighted husband (Kevin Dunn) as her partner in favor of Sam after seeing one of her old dance recital videos (Applegate, who starred on Broadway in "Sweet Charity," certainly knows how to move). But, of course, post-accident Sam turns out to have forgotten how to dance. By the time the episode's climactic contest scene rolled around, in which Regina asks Sam to dance with her, even though she's awful, I felt like I was watching any run-of-the-mill sitcom, not one that was so promising last season.

Luckily, as the season wore on, the show started to find its footing again. An episode about Sam deciding to work as a volunteer in Africa, but then chickening out and going into hiding in Chicago instead, had as silly a premise as the season premiere, but the comedy was sharper, and it was good to see "good Sam" in a little more human way. Things got much better with the next installment, "The Pill," in which Sam's doctor gives her a pill that helps restore some of her memories (but only while she's under the influence of the drug). The flashbacks gave Applegate the chance to play "bad Sam," to great comic effect. By the time the end of the episode rolls around, and Sam is desperately trying to act on what she has discovered about herself and her relationship with her ex-boyfriend/current roommate, Todd (Barry Watson), before the drug wears off, the "Memento"-like sequence was both funny and heart-tugging. In other words, like the old "Samantha Who?"

"The Pill" seemed to turn the tide, and the three offerings that followed, which have concentrated on Sam's new relationship with a wealthy environmentalist, Owen (James Tupper), and her new real estate business with Regina, were much stronger. Sam working her way through her feelings for Todd has been fertile ground for comedy and plot development, and her "Odd Couple"-like business interactions with her mother have been very entertaining (like Regina's declaration that cupcakes are in for house showings, while chocolate chip cookies are passe, but Sam saves the day by serving smores).

To me, "Samantha Who?" works best when the action revolves around Samantha. I still don't like Tim Russ's doorman, Frank, which I still think is a case of monumental miscasting, and as much as I loved McCarthy as Sookie on "Gilmore Girls," Dena is like Sookie on amphetamines, and she's sometimes a bit hard to take. As is spending time with the with the loathsome Andrea, who starts to grate after a while. I am totally uninterested in whether she will succumb to the wooing of Todd's old friend Seth (Stephen Rannazzisi). But when we are with Sam, the show works. Full credit to Applegate, who gives the performance of her career, and to the writers, led by executive producer Donald Todd, a true TV veteran (he was a writer on "Alf"), who keep things funny and interesting.

As an aside, Applegate's breast cancer diagnosis and subsequent double mastectomy before the season started hasn't been a distraction. I'd challenge anyone who didn't know about the story to see any difference in her performance, wardrobe or appearance. Obviously, Applegate's health is far more important than "Samantha Who?", but it's nice that she seems to have both under control.

"The Big Bang Theory" is, in so many ways, the opposite of "Samantha Who?" "Big Bang" is a traditional, multi-camera, studio-set sitcom, with more of a set-up-punch approach to its comedy. When it debuted last year in the slot after the great "How I Met Your Mother," I thought it was funny, but I wasn't sure there was enough there to support an ongoing show. (You can read my review here.) A little more than a year later, I am happy to say that the concept works just fine.

Far less plot oriented than "Samantha Who?", and also less interested in character development, "Big Bang" goes straight for the laughs. The program follows roommates and friends Leonard (Johnny Galecki) and Sheldon (Jim Parsons), two physicists who share an apartment in a slightly run-down Pasadena building. In last year's pilot, blonde aspiring actress Penny (Kaley Cuoco) moved in across the hall, and Leonard was immediately smitten. The Penny-Leonard will-they-or-won't-they arc was the closest thing "Big Bang" had to a an overriding plot, and it was nearly disposed of in last season's finale and this season's debut. Leonard and Penny finally go on a date in the finale, but by the end of the first episode of this season, Leonard had blown things, and the two were just friends again. So much for any plot dependence.

"Big Bang" is happy to introduce a new story each week meant to mine comedy from its ensemble. Leonard is the more socially adept of the roommates, able to successfully interact with other human beings in normal situations. He's even been able to bed two women this year, including fellow scientist Leslie (played by Galecki's former "Roseanne" castmate Sara Gilbert, who is a recurring presence on the show). But Leonard knows he's a nerd, and while he's not entirely happy about it (he will often try and hide a geeky activity when Penny enters the room), he also has enough self-esteem to know that he's fine as he is. As the more human of the two, Leonard is the heart of the show. He's the guy we're rooting for.

Sheldon, on the other hand, is the guy who makes us laugh. Although Sheldon may not always know why. He is completely befuddled by societal niceties (and he only has a passing interest in them, at best). For example, when a science groupie offers to bring Sheldon dinner, he doesn't see she is smitten by him, so that when Leonard asks him if he knows what just happened, he responds, "Yes, I just got a free dinner." Sheldon is really not, by any definition, a nice person, what with his single-minded pursuit of his goals (which range from his lofty science ambitions to his refusal to change his everyday routines, like where he sits in the apartment and what night the group plays "Halo"). But as "Big Bang" is going for laughs first and foremost, we, as an audience, are more likely to give Sheldon a pass, especially since, nearly always, he faces comeuppance for his selfish actions.

The excellent ensemble is rounded out by the two scientists who hang out with Leonard and Sheldon. Raj, from India, somehow plays into and also explodes the worst TV stereotypes of people from his country. His computer video conversations with his parents, which bring out the cultural tug-of-war Raj experiences, are always good for laughs. He is no wilting flower around the guys, but in the presence of a woman, he is unable to speak (unless he's drunk, in which case he becomes another person, confident and arrogant).

The funniest character on the show just might be Howard (Simon Helberg), usually referred to by his last name, Wolowitz. Howard lives with his mother and "only" has a Masters in engineering (as Sheldon likes to remind him, even though he builds stuff for the space program), but he is constantly on the prowl, trying to land beautiful women. You have to give the guy credit for taking so much abuse but continuing to move forward. While watching "America's Next Top Model" (a shameless plug for a corporate sibling of "Big Bang"), Howard refers to each of the women as "the future Mrs. Walowitz," and he ends up using every scientific tool at his and Raj's disposal to track down the models' house. Once they get there, when Raj asks which way they should go, he says, of course, to "follow Mrs. Walowitz."

The producers made a smart decision this season to slowly develop Penny from the kind of traditional sweet-but-dumb bimbo she was early last season into a more three-dimensional character. Penny now may not be book smart, but she is certainly sharp enough when it comes to people. A credit to the show is that even though Penny has dated a parade of good-looking guys, you totally believe she would hang out with the four dweebs in the apartment next store. Because to Penny, they are not just four dweebs. They are individuals: One she genuinely likes (Leonard), one she tolerates (barely) because she understands that he doesn't know better (Sheldon), one she likes but can't really have much of a relationship with because he's mute around her (Raj), and one she can laugh at while rejecting his advances (Howard).

"Big Bang" has developed into the kind of solid, funny sitcom that used to be more common on the networks' schedules. It is looking for a broader audience than "30 Rock" or "The Office," and it doesn't aim to be as cinematic as "Samantha Who?" It just wants to make audiences laugh. And it does so, in fact much more so than "Two and a Half Men" (Chuck Lorre is an executive producer on both "Big Bang" and "Two and a Half Men").

As different as "Big Bang" and "Samantha Who" are, they both deliver laughs on Monday nights. And with so few sitcoms on the air right now, I am grateful to have them both.