ICYMI: Don’t Forget Samantha Who? or Christina Applegate’s Underrated Comedic Legacy

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ICYMI: Don’t Forget Samantha Who? or Christina Applegate’s Underrated Comedic Legacy

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“Amnesia doesn’t exist! It’s just a cheap and lazy storytelling device.” —Samantha Who?, “The Restraining Order”

In May 2007, ABC picked up a sitcom pilot to series, starring Christina Applegate as a—hilarious premise incoming—hit and run victim-turned-coma patient-turned-amnesiac. Originally titled Sam I Am—then Samantha Be Good, following Dr. Seuss-related legal issues, before settling on Samantha Who?—it was one of the most anticipated new sitcoms of its television season, especially for ABC. After all, Samantha Who? premiered in the same season as the forgotten Carpoolers, the Geico commercial-inspired Cavemen, and the Judy Greer-led Miss Guided (likely a future ICYMI). While Carpoolers at least had Jerry O’Connell—who also guest-starred in the first season episode of Samantha Who?—as part of its ensemble, and Miss Guided allowed Judy Greer to be the lead instead of the best friend, Samantha Who? was the biggest star-driven vehicle of this season. It was also a series with a high-concept hook (that brought a comedic twist to an otherwise trite trope that ABC dramas like Grey’s Anatomy were playing straight at the time), a terrific supporting cast (that’s still impressive to this day), and an original voice (created by Irish novelist Cecelia Ahern and prolific TV writer-producer Donald Todd) in a time when new sitcoms were really struggling.

In fact, other than Samantha Who?, the only successful half-hour network comedy to premiere in the 2007-2008 television season was CBS’s The Big Bang Theory.

Yet despite both seasons being readily available to stream—unlike a number of past and future ICYMI series—via ABC’s app and website, and the series being a ratings and critical hit when it aired, Samantha Who? is yet another great series that’s somehow fallen out of the pop culture discussion. Except, of course, whenever the topic of a new Christina Applegate-led (and produced) sitcom comes up, that is—like NBC’s Up All Night and Netflix’s Dead to Me. (Jesse, Applegate’s first sitcom as a leading lady doesn’t tend to come up, despite also airing two seasons, garnering Applegate a Golden Golden nomination, and remaining in TV’s viewership Top 20 during its run from 1998-2000. Then again, the Ira Ungerleider-created series went from an average of 20.1 million viewers in its first season to 16.65 million viewers in its second, which made it a failure back then.) Samantha Who? established what has become expected with an Applegate-led sitcom: It’s going to have an interesting premise, Applegate will play a different character than one you’ve seen from her before, and you’re still going to talk about it years after it’s unceremoniously canceled.

With Samantha Who?, the amnesia premise may have seemed hackneyed in 2007, but what made the series work was the combination of how it handled that concept—in terms of leaning into the tropiness of it all and how it could change a person’s personality or whole way of thinking—and the way all of the characters treated the situation, from Applegate’s eponymous real estate exec Samantha “Sam” Newly to her parents and friends to even complete strangers who found out about the condition. Applegate had the task of (and succeeded at) playing Sam as somewhat childlike without coming across as an idiot, and somewhat self-absorbed without lacking empathy (differentiating her from her pre-amnesia self). Plus, there was a solid story in the very premise of relearning how to be a person, especially when everyone already has their own opinions and memories of how you were. That’s where the added component of pre-coma, pre-amnesia Sam (“Old Sam” or “Bad Sam”) came in, and managed to elevate the series’ humor further.

The best way to describe “Bad Sam,” glorious wig and all, is as the lead of the type of cable dark comedy parody you’d see on The Good Wife. Despite the amnesia premise, Samantha Who? knew how to avoid playing things too broad—and how to make a show full of conceited characters also full of genuine emotion—but it never held back on making “Bad Sam” as absurdly irredeemable as possible. But that was also why the little moments that revealed she did have a heart, buried deep, deep down also worked … and explained why her ex-boyfriend Todd (Barry Watson) dated her for three years, other than Stockholm Syndrome. “Bad Sam” was definitely more “fun” to watch than “New Sam” (not exactly “Good Sam”), but “New Sam” allowed Applegate to play a more unexpected, unpredictable, and difficult role, somehow seamlessly navigating the uncharted territory of a 30-year-old woman trying to start over.

Todd, the closest to a true comedic straight man for the series, of course struggled with fully accepting that Sam had actually changed and wouldn’t resort back to her old self. But there was also Dena (Melissa McCarthy), the childhood best friend who Sam completely ditched in the seventh grade, and Andrea (Jennifer Esposito), Sam’s adult best friend and a functioning alcoholic who misses her (often literal) partner in crime. And then there were Sam’s parents, Regina (Jean Smart) and Howard (Kevin Dunn), who Sam hadn’t spoken to in two years prior to getting hit by a car. And despite the soft lighting and quirky score that would suggest the series had no edge at all, the characters in Samantha Who? were always a little off-kilter and slightly inappropriate—especially Smart and Esposito’s characters—which was part of why they worked so well, and why it still holds up now.

Samantha Who? also had a framing device where Sam would write all of her now-new experiences in a little notebook—like why someone has a restraining order against her or even just her favorite ice cream or what’s she’s allergic to. As Sam kept track of that sort of thing, the series made it clear that she would have a lot to learn, so if the show had lasted longer than two seasons, she’d still never learn them all. She’d never get all her memories back. As the looks back at “Bad Sam” were all flashes of memories coming to “New Sam,” it was a convenient concept that (amusingly) even Sam got annoyed with quickly and other characters would attempt to kickstart in different ways, like shaking, the most scientific method. And to add to the series’ obvious grasp of science, it turned the concept of muscle memory usually seen in TV and film into a joke as well, forgoing expected instances of that—like Sam’s dancing ability—in favor of things that triggered Sam’s more “Bad Sam” impulses—like knowing how to break into cars.

Because of the premise, Applegate’s Sam was never quite the straight man of the series, and the show owed a lot of its creative success to that. It also owed its difficulty to pull that off to Sam’s tightrope walk as well, even though Applegate made it look easy. Just imagining this premise with a different lead—or a different cast, in general—it pretty much falls apart. With just the slightest tweak, the show could have either been too cheesy or too self-serious or too … anything other than what it ended up being.

Like previous ICYMI feature Eli Stone, Samantha Who? premiered during the Writers Strike season. In fact, just a few days after Samantha Who? got a full 22-episode season order (occurring just two weeks after the series premiered) the strike set in. Unlike Eli Stone, Samantha Who? was a bonafide hit for ABC, but wasn’t able to produce a full first season, airing only 15 episodes instead. But while the strike affected the show’s momentum from a behind-the-scenes standpoint, it arguably didn’t lead to the series’ downfall. Instead, it was the age-old story of timeslot-changing and money. Especially the money thing. Airing on Monday nights, Samantha Who’s lead-in in its first season were Seasons 5 and 6 of Dancing with the Stars. (With the exception of two Samantha Who? episodes in December 2007 which, understandably, ended up the least-viewed episodes of the season). The first six episodes of the series made it the most-watched sitcom on television, surpassing the then-reigning champion, Two and a Half Men, for a time. Plus, Samantha Who? was critically-acclaimed, with Applegate earning those Emmy and Golden Globes nominations for both seasons, and Smart winning the Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series for the first.

When Samantha Who? returned for its second season, it was again paired with Dancing with the Stars (Season 7) for its first seven episodes. The series then aired two more episodes on Monday—again in December, strangely paired with Christmas specials—before moving to Thursdays in March 2009. With that schedule change, Samantha Who? no longer had a high-profile lead-in, instead airing after ABC’s new midseason bomb In the Motherhood. Viewership only went down from there, and on May 18, ABC announced its cancellation, a month after the 13th episode of the season aired. It then burned the series’ remaining episodes off starting that June.

By all accounts, ABC didn’t hold Samantha Who?’s poor lead-in (or declining ratings as a result) against it, and the series was still considered to be a lock for renewal. But come negotiation time, the network wanted the series to slash the budget—reportedly by $500,000—and the major idea floated around to make the cuts work was one to retool the single-camera sitcom into a multi-camera format. While it’s unclear if series showrunner Donald Todd or even Applegate herself ever really considered that change, ultimately, it didn’t come to pass and the series was canceled. With that, Samantha Who? would be the first Applegate-led series to get the ol’ attempted “single-cam into a multi-cam” retooling, but it would not be the strangest.

When I reviewed Showtime’s On Becoming a God in Central Florida, I wrote that Kirsten Dunst “has consistently been one of the most underrated, unsung actresses around for decades.” I’d argue the same for Applegate, especially when it comes to the world of comedy, especially the longer she’s in the game. (Yet, before deciding to do Dead to Me, she was shockingly semi-retired from acting—as opposed to fully retired, like her friend and The Sweetest Thing co-star Cameron Diaz has been since 2014.) From her time as bombshell Kelly Bundy in Married… with Children to her time as second fiddle in movies like A View From The Top and The Sweetest Thing to her leading television roles in shows like the aforementioned Samantha Who?, Up All Night, and Dead to Me, Applegate brings something new to the comedic table each time. That should never be forgotten.

Despite her mother’s wishes, LaToya Ferguson is a writer living in Los Angeles. If you want to talk The WB’s image campaigns circa 1999-2003, LaToya’s your girl. Her writing has been featured in The A.V. Club, IndieWire, and Entertainment Weekly, among other publications. You can find her tweets about TV shows, movies, and music you completely forgot about @lafergs.

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