We should all rise from our ergonomic recliners and give a cheer for Christina Applegate, who has returned to the sitcom at last. It’s her home, really. She grew up before a studio audience honing her comedy skills as withering ditz Kelly Bundy on Married With Children, and emerged as a young woman on the sweet-but-tepid NBC show Jesse. But she’s been away for a bit. And while I understand the lure of movies (Anchorman) and Broadway (Sweet Charity), her gifts as a comic actress almost demand that she go where the best roles are — and for women, especially ones who know how to make you laugh, that’s the small screen.
She not only knows her way around a one-liner — physically and verbally — but she has that intangible aura of prime-time good will that could make her an ambassador for the medium. (After Cavemen, the idea’s not wholly silly.)
Her new show is the unfortunately named single-camera half-hour Samantha Who? — the title doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue when you add it to the sentence “Hey, did you see this week’s [blank]?” Applegate plays a Manhattan woman with something called retrograde amnesia; she’s high-functioning but has no memory for anything that happened before a coma-inducing hit-and-run accident. The role turns out to be a near-perfect vessel for her talents. Awakened after eight days and hurled into the hustle-bustle life of the person she supposedly was — and, as morally dubious details reveal themselves, hopes she isn’t anymore — Applegate’s Samantha Newley is a beautifully hilarious jumble of urban blonde sex appeal, twinkling and determined eyes, snappy delivery, and wind-up arms and legs that suggests the class-movie mistress of madcap herself, Carole Lombard.
An old-fashioned kind of ’30s screwball heart may be Applegate’s contribution to the show, but like all TV series, it’s got its same-medium forebears. There’s a little bit of Ugly Betty and Men in Trees in Samantha Newley’s woman-outside-her-comfort-zone situation (having your brain’s memory drive wiped out is, let’s face it, about as uncomfortable as it gets), but also, oddly enough, My Name Is Earl, in that Sam is trying to turn a bad former self into a good new one. A great reactive comedienne, Applegate goes to town with co-creator Donald Todd’s clever ways of having Sam discover elements of her pre-coma personality, and while I won’t ruin the jokey surprise of some of these well-timed moments, let’s just say honest, tactful, caring and moderate weren’t high on old Sam’s to-be list. Like Earl, Samantha Who? mines loads of humor from its character’s desire to change stripes when history and environment work against that.
I even detected a faint desire on the show’s part to expunge the self-absorbed, materialism-sanctioning specter of Sex and the City that’s hovered over so many recent female-centered start-ups. Through occasional flashbacks to the nasty, unpleasant Sam, Applegate has opportunities — which she obviously relishes — to showcase her comic versatility. But these glimpses of a gone-wild, party-girl existence embarrass Sam, and rummaging through her fancy apartment closet, she is aghast at the designer footwear she’s accumulated.
“Was the country converting to some sort of shoe-based economy?” Sam rants to her live-in boyfriend (Barry Watson), who seems as jittery as she is about their suddenly strangerlike cohabitation. You could even make the case that a show in which amnesia gives a woman the chance to reinvent her crabby hedonist image is Applegate’s way of hoping viewers quit thinking of her as Kelly Bundy once and for all.
I’ve got to say, with Applegate making such a strong showing this fall, it’s shaping up to be a banner time for funny women on television, maybe the strongest, most personality-diverse ever. If I think about it, I’m probably laughing more at the performances of females than at males right now, and as someone who grew up addicted to the healing powers of Lombard, Jean Arthur, Carol Burnett, Lucille Ball and Bea Arthur — and who believes the movies are possibly at an all-time low in allowing women to show comedy chops — this is truly exciting. On the networks, you have Tina Fey’s harried wit and Jane Krakowski’s show-biz obliviousness (30 Rock), Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ modern-mom humiliations and Wanda Sykes’ straight-talk express (The New Adventures of Old Christine), Alyson Hannigan’s romantic nuttiness and Cobie Smulders’ hottie neuroticism (How I Met Your Mother), Jaime Pressley’s white-trash venality (My Name Is Earl), the well-cast farceurs of Desperate Housewives, and over on cable, there’s the melancholy snarkiness of Mary Louise Parker and Elizabeth Perkins (Weeds), the sweetly dopey Ashley Jensen (Extras), the profanely dismantling Susie Essman (Curb Your Enthusiasm), and serrated-edge goddesses Sarah Silverman, Kathy Griffin, Laura Kightlinger and Chelsea Handler.
What Applegate brings to this spectrum is a portrait of a hapless do-gooder, a reborn angel running away from her devil beginnings and inevitably straight into a wall. And while Applegate’s abilities are enough to anchor any ol’ 30 minutes you could throw at her, the bonus is that funny women fairly dominate the cast of Samantha Who? The formidable Jean Smart plays her mother, a tart mixture of selfishness (she’s shooting a poor-us audition video for Extreme Makeover: Home Edition in the hospital room when Samantha awakes) and genuine affection for a daughter she hopes will forget their combative history.
It’s Smart who hilariously first clues us in to Samantha’s less-than-charming near past. When her daughter innocently says to her, “You made me who I am,” Smart tearily counters with, “That is a terrible thing to say!”
An ebullient Jennifer Esposito, meanwhile, scores wicked laughs as the best friend who thinks she can still coax out the vice-loving queen of mean she knew and loved. And Melissa McCarthy takes a standard oddball role — as a once-rejected childhood friend of Sam’s trying to insinuate herself into her life again — and finds amusing new contours of sweet/sad awkwardness.
Beyond its title, I have no quibble with this well-made, sly, heartwarming and at times giddily funny show. Let amnesia doctors shake their heads again at Hollywood’s use of brain injury as a medically unsound, happily convenient on/off switch, because in Applegate, connoisseurs of great comic acting will find much to remember.
SAMANTHA WHO? | ABC | Mondays, 9:30 p.m.
Scores provided by Rotten Tomatoes