It wasn’t my favorite new comedy of last season, nor is it my favorite first-two-years series this year, but I do think that Samantha Who?, starring Christina Applegate, is a fairly infectious show. Rarely do I find myself laughing out loud as opposed to a general smirk every now and then, but there is definitely room for shows like that on network TV. You know, ones where the ridiculous situations aren’t completely forced, the comedy comes out of the characters and not the other way around, and you just seem to generally like everybody in the cast.
A comedy about amnesia, Samantha Newly wakes up after a car crash unable to remember great big details of her life. Slowly, however, she finds out that she was a terrible human being, a skank and a bully, and like a big city-set, female My Name Is Earl, she now feels that she must make up for her past ways. Standing in her way are her oblivious mother Regina (Emmy winner Jean Smart) and her bitchy best friend Andrea (Jennifer Esposito), who simply don’t understand this bright, new person in Samantha, while others like elementary school friend-turned-helpful new friend Dena (Melissa McCarthy), Samantha’s father Howard (Kevin Dunn) and ex-boyfriend Todd (Barry Watson) are far more welcoming of this karma-believing woman.
Let’s just get this out of the way – I don’t think Jean Smart deserved that Emmy for Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series earlier this year. It should have gone to either Kristen Chenoweth or Amy Poehler. (However, I couldn’t care less about Holland Taylor on Two And A Half Men, and if you read this blog you know I think that Vanessa L. Williams is one of the weakest links on Ugly Betty.) I find Smart’s role a bit too easy, simply following the script of this wackadoo mother and her constant mood swings and her ignorant ways. It’s nothing special.
(To be fair, I loved Jean Smart on 24, but was fine when she lost Best Supporting Actor in a Drama Series to Blythe Danner in the dearly missed hyper-real Showtime drama Huff.)
What is special is Melissa McCarthy from Gilmore Girls. (She’s also especially good in John August’s tiny indie puzzler The Nines.) I mentioned that I rarely laugh out loud while watching this show. Well, it’s because of her sweet innocence and her goofy charm that gets those infrequent laughs out of me. A combination of sweetheart and stalker, her role is more complicated, but she infuses it with such energy and charisma that you kind of forget that she’s taking advantage of Samantha, restarting their friendship now that Samantha doesn’t even remember why they drifted apart in the first place. The best moment of the season is her comparison to Samantha’s former boss (and Dena’s boyfriend) to a cuddly bear. There are very few things I like in this world more than a goofy laugh, and McCarthy has them in great big bundles.
I also think that Jennifer Esposito, previously playing either the hard-edged cop or the dumb bombshell, has finally stepped up to the plate and given the performance of her lifetime. Her Andrea should be a complete comedy turn-off, what with her complete selfishness and ignorance of any form of human compassion, but she owns the role with such conviction that you don’t really seem to care. She knows she’s a terrible human being, and it’s that knowledge that makes her such a fearless and watchable character. I appreciate good drunk acting, too, and Esposito brings it extra hard when she has downed a few.
This season, the show has lost a good deal of its charm (the Samantha-Todd chemistry has completely fizzled) and its plots a little too Sitcom 101. The season opener was especially awful, in which Samantha tried to help her mother in a dance competition to show up the awkwardly cast guest star, Cybill Shepherd. (I don’t watch The L Word, but I hope she fits better and acts better in that world.) But other episodes, like “Help!” with Mary-Kate Olsen (who is having a very good couple years of good random appearances in movies and shows) as a troubled teenager doing court-ordered community service, are fun in the way that Samantha approaches her new life, struggling to stay a good person despite all the shit that surrounds her.
About that conflict within Samantha’s own brain, the good vs. the bad – it never worked better this season than in the second episode, “Out of Africa,” when Samantha really really wanted to help those suffering in Africa, but when told of all the dangers of traveling to a war-torn region and all the shots she would have to take in order to go in the first place, she freaks out and instead goes to Florida with her friends while only pretending to go to Africa. (Her parents, however, think she’s dead after seeing a terrifying news story.) It’s a very relatable trait, the having to settle for only being a kind-of-good-person, and it keeps Samantha from being too sweet and saintly. She has faults, and she knows it. But every little step counts, and Applegate makes it work.
I don’t watch the show with any kind of weekly consistency. I tend to let the episodes pile up on our bedroom DVR and simply run through a couple episodes in a row every now and then – they are surprisingly easy to watch in clumps – but I do consider them a very nice way to end the day before I go to sleep. Like I said, it’s infectious and energetic, and while I think it should make at least a little bit more of an effort to tell actual jokes, I appreciate it for what it is, and I am very grateful for the ready-for-anything cast.