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Reviewed by Will Harris
mnesia: is it the most overused, ridiculous plot device ever? If it isn’t, it’s gotta be in the top five, if only for how many times it’s been utilized in soap operas over the years. And, yet, while the drama “John Doe” successfully utilized a character’s amnesia as one of its key premises, prior to the 2007 – 2008 season, no one had ever tried it as the focus of a sitcom. That is surprising, really, given how well its comedic possibilities have been realized in film over the years.
It’s only appropriate that the first two cinematic examples that leap to mind, “50 First Dates” and “Overboard,” were driven as much by the performances of the respective lead actresses (Drew Barrymore and Goldie Hawn) as they were by the results of their characters suffering from memory loss. While “Samantha Who?” has an outstanding ensemble cast, it’s the performance of Christina Applegate as the series’ resident amnesiac that never fails to keeps the show afloat.
“Samantha Who?” centers on Samantha Newly (Applegate), who, as the series begins, is lying in a hospital bed, having been in a coma for eight days after being hit by a car. Upon waking, she discovers that she is suffering from retrograde amnesia, a phenomenon that leaves its victims with the majority of their general knowledge, but precious little in the way of specifics about their lives. The issue for Samantha is this: she quickly discovers that the person she used to be was actually a pretty awful human being, and the person she is now isn’t overly thrilled with most of the life that she now finds herself with.
And can you blame her? When she first wakes up in the hospital, it’s with a camera in her face, due to her mother, Regina (Jean Smart), trying to use Samantha’s coma to score a free home makeover. Talk about your stage-setting moments. Regina’s very much a materialistic, “it’s all about me” person, forever making inappropriate comments and, when Samantha looks blankly at her when she mentions something from her past, asks, “Don’t you remember…?” (“Uh, no, Mom. I’ve got amnesia?”) Sure, Samantha’s dad, Howard (Kevin Dunn), is a nice enough guy, but he’s generally pretty clueless, preferring to just tolerate his wife’s actions rather than argue with her about them.
Applegate’s comedic abilities are really put to the test in “Samantha Who?” and she comes out victorious across the board. The occasional flashback scenes, where we see “Bad Sam,” give her a chance to play the bitch, of course, but it’s the way she portrays Samantha’s uncertainties about her life that make for the most fun, with her present and former personalities constantly battling it out. She’s aided in this by having a pair of friends who serve as the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other. The latter role is played by Andrea (Jennifer Esposito), a party girl – some would say alcoholic – whose personality is similar enough to Regina’s for a therapist to have a field day. On the flip side, there’s the sweet and innocent Dena (Melissa McCarthy), Samantha’s childhood friend who, though she hadn’t seen her since they were in junior high, turned up at the hospital and convinced Samantha that they’d been friends all along. To call Dena a social outcast would be cruel, but it would not be inaccurate, so you can imagine that she and Andrea get along like oil and water. Oh, and we haven’t even gotten into Samantha’s romantic past, which is decidedly convoluted. She was living with her boyfriend, Todd (Barry Watson), but although she was cheating on him with Rene (William Abadie), he didn’t know and it didn’t have anything to do with him breaking up with her immediately prior to that fateful car. Now that she’s not the awful person he broke up with, however, the relationship between Samantha and Todd is a strange one, and as the season progresses, we find out that Todd ain’t the greatest guy in the world, either.
If you never watched “Star Trek: Voyager,” then you may not be familiar with Tim Russ, who plays Frank, the doorman at Samantha’s apartment, but let me assure you that he had plenty of time to perfect his deadpan delivery while playing Commander Tuvok, the Vulcan chief of security on the USS Voyager. As a character, Frank’s kind of a one-trick pony, using his skills of observation to fill in blanks in Samantha’s life that no one else can assist with (though he does so begrudgingly, as he didn’t like her any more than anyone else did), but Russ never fails to get a laugh out of the few lines he gets per episode.
“Samantha Who?” isn’t the most medically realistic sitcom, but the way it plays with structure is often favorably reminiscent of “How I Met Your Mother,” with Samantha having partial revelations about her past and filling in the blanks gradually over the course of the episode, some occurring coincidentally to the main storyline. For example, one of the best episodes of the season centers around Samantha’s attempts to assure a former ex-boyfriend that he no longer needs the restraining order he had put on her (though, of course, she turns into a stalker while trying to tell him this), but a recurring joke about how she inexplicably bursts into tears whenever she hears “We Got The Beat,” by The Go-Go’s, ends up revealing why she and her father haven’t been very close.
ABC’s history with clever sitcoms hasn’t been great in recent years – you know things are bad when the first comedy that leaps to mind is “According to Jim” – so it’s an uphill battle to get the world to appreciate “Samantha Who?” Still, after checking out this first-season set, it’s clear that it’s a battle worth fighting.
Special Features: Though the bonus material here is a little thin, we do get audio commentary on the pilot episode from Applegate and executive producers Donald Todd and Peter Traugott, deleted scenes with optional intros from Todd, and a blooper reel.