'Samantha Who?': Less Than Memorable

Christina Applegate (flanked by Jennifer Esposito, and William Abadie) as the title character who suffers from amnesia in ABC's befuddled new sitcom.
Christina Applegate (flanked by Jennifer Esposito, and William Abadie) as the title character who suffers from amnesia in ABC's befuddled new sitcom. (By Michael Desmond -- Abc)
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 15, 2007

As the new TV season begins its fourth week tonight, a few things are painfully clear. For one: There isn't, among the ranks of the first-string season-starters, an all-out, crash-bang, exploding-scoreboard smash hit.

In fact, some leftover hits from seasons past are showing distressing signs of stress, having dropped off in ratings and quality. Two dear friends who were absolutely devout in their devotion to Fox's "House," for example, tell me the show has taken a new direction that is turning them into former fans fast.

If "House" has become a performance (by Hugh Laurie, as a cranky doctor) disguised as a show, such is also, conveniently enough, the case with "Samantha Who?," a sitcom that stars Christina Applegate and premieres tonight on ABC. Applegate essentially plays two characters, and yet her problem is that she doesn't have enough of a character to play. The two Samanthas are simply irritating and hyper in different ways, and don't add up to one complete, compelling kook.

As the series and Samantha's adorable eyes open, she's awakening in a hospital bed from an eight-day coma, having been knocked for a loop by a hit-and-run driver. The physical injuries appear minor, but Samantha is suffering from "retrograde amnesia," says a nurse; the poor dear has been left clueless about her identity, her likes and dislikes, and such details of her existence as the fact that she was about to break up with her boyfriend.

Applegate flirts with comic greatness; she's at heart a joy to watch, as she was when she first got national attention in Fox's nasty "Married . . . With Children." On that show, she was little more than a pinup for the prurient. Now she's developed into an accomplished comic actress, a potential Mary Tyler Moore for the 21st century.

But whether in present-day scenes of Samantha bumbling dumbly around in a daze, or in flashbacks of Samantha being a hardhearted, coldblooded real estate executive, the actress is called upon to behave too broadly, too physically, too annoyingly. Her blithering is too dithery and her callousness too cruel. She's not just over the top, she's over two tops.

True, it could be plain old-fashioned bad acting, but Applegate has moments of sweet appeal, times when she's allowed to inject a soupcon of subtlety into the portrayal, that suggest she's capable of wondrous things in front of a camera. But the producers (one of whom, admittedly, is Applegate herself) and the various directors have pumped "Samantha" too full of adrenaline and Kickapoo Joy Juice. She's like a parakeet that's busted out of its cage and now flutters wildly around the room, clunking into walls and light fixtures -- and adamantly refusing to shut up

You want to grab her and make her hold still. And who could blame you?

Most of the rest of the cast tilts too broadly as well, particularly Jean Smart as yet another monster mommy, this one a lot like the mercantile mother played by venerable Holland Taylor on CBS's "Two and a Half Men," though that one's more funny than Smart. Kevin Dunn, the estimable and versatile actor who memorably played the frustrated father of the Brothers Wilson in a Beach Boys biopic, manages to tone things down whenever he's at the center of a scene, but that isn't often enough.

Sometimes the show is too preposterous even for farce. Samantha could have simply asked her mother, her father or her best friend, Andrea (tough cookie Jennifer Esposito), what she does for a living -- her profession being one of the things that's slipped her mind. Instead, Donald Todd's contrived script has her going to work and waiting until the middle of a staff meeting before suddenly having a cut-rate epiphany and shouting out, "Real estate!" Thus does she finally and belatedly figure out her field of endeavor.

The old Samantha was a ruthless brute at her job, thinking nothing of leveling a church to make way for the planet's 2 billionth mini-mall, whereas the new Samantha is sensitive and caring and community-minded -- though in a silly, goofball way. The show seems almost to be saying that efficient viciousness is preferable to clueless, screw-loose good intentions; it sends out a mess of mixed messages.

In an interview, Applegate declared that during Samantha's period of unconsciousness, the character somehow turned into a virgin again, thus a candidate for the New Yorker's "neatest trick of the week." She must have been speaking metaphorically.

Applegate could be the show's saving -- well, "grace" would be inappropriate here, but she'd be the show's salvation if she could play at least one of the two Samantha's as a human being rather than a steroidal parody of sitcomics from yesteryear. Comedy depends on timing, as all the world knows, and somehow the timing seems all wrong for a new diva of ditz to be running riot across the airwaves.

Samantha may suffer from retrograde amnesia, but what's worse is that she's trapped in a world of low-grade antics.

Samantha Who? (30 minutes) airs tonight at 9:30 on Channel 7.

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