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Samantha Who?: The Complete First Season
- Frank the doorman
When I came out of the closet at age 24, I was quickly greeted with an unending array of excruciatingly embarrassing situations: From nervously entering a gay bar for the first time to extoling the fashion virtue of Old Navy clothing (tragic, I know) to a date who struggled to keep a straight face, from figuring out what all those acronyms meant (the hard way, I might add--and I still don't know what some of them stand for) to that awkward first kiss (followed by plenty of other awkward firsts), it took me a while to find my footing--and myself. Ah, the joys of delayed adolescence!
So while I don't have amnesia, I can still relate a little bit to Samantha Newly, who wakes up in the hospital after eight days in a coma, the result of a hit-and-run accident. She's surrounded by friends and family--but she can't remember them, the victim of a retrograde amnesia that slowly gets chipped away as she re-learns her life. That's the admittedly silly premise for Samantha Who?, a point acknowledged by the writers through Nathan, an ex of Sam's that she soon re-learns filed a restraining order against her: "Amnesia doesn't exist! It's just a cheap and lazy storytelling technique!"
More importantly, it's a star vehicle for Christina Applegate, a fitting choice considering the show--like the woman--is so damn cute and likeable. The same can't be said for "Bad Sam", the self-centered, vain, materialistic meanie she used to be (we get glorious glimpses of that longer-haired persona in flashbacks that provide some of the show's biggest laughs). With a new lease on life, Sam takes on a new challenge--trying to figure out who she is ("How can you be yourself if you don't know who you are?"). But she quickly finds out who she was, and it isn't pretty. Old Sam was universally loathed, and hadn't even spoken to her mother in two years ("Oh...I'm baaaad..."). As she grows into being a better person, she has a strong desire to prove people can change--although the people she wronged in her previous life aren't so easily convinced (the show has a small dose of My Name is Earl repentance).
Applegate is playing two distinctly different people here, and shines in both roles. The two sometimes merge, as bits of Bad Sam burst out of New Sam without warning ("Step off, beeotch! I'll cap your ass!"). The actress has found the perfect showcase for her comedic talents, which until now we've seen glimpses of in mostly supporting roles.
Speaking of those, Applegate is supported by three outstanding women who help the show thrive: Jeanne Smart is Regina, Sam's loving yet sometimes selfish, passive aggressive, attention-starved mom ("You have very steady hands...you could have been a doctor's assistant"); Jennifer Esposito is the alcohol-loving Andrea, Sam's best friend and co-worker--just as self-centered, vain, materialistic and mean as Bad Sam ("I would kill to have a food allergy...it's like nature's diet. I spent five years trying to become lactose intolerant"); and Melissa McCarthy is Dena, the childhood friend that was ditched when Sam became popular--and now sees a second chance to get back into her life (along with her two giant, scene-stealing Newfies, Mr. Cellophane and Newf Gingrich). While the role of the overweight wannabe friend with low self-esteem may seem thankless, McCarthy makes Dena the most relatable character, injecting her with humble--and frequently hilarious--humanity (when she observes "I'm confused about my role here" to Sam and Andrea, you want to laugh and cry).
It's the relationships between the four leading women that provide the show's funniest moments (the scene with all four of them drunk = fantastic! More of those, please!). My favorite dynamic is between Esposito and McCarthy as the polar-opposite friends. Andrea frequently directs her scorn at Dena, who she sees as a threat to Sam's attention ("If people could change, would you be you?!"). Andrea also tries to pull out more of Bad Sam ("I will be so happy when you finally re-experience everything and that spark of wonder in your eyes goes dark again"), while at the same time clashing with Regina ("Oh, hi Andrea...you know, there's a perfect dress for you in here. It looks just as good out at night as it does stumbling home in the morning.").
Esposito is like a toned-down version of Karen from Will & Grace and the Ab Fab ladies. She's not quite as exaggerated as those influences, and has created a likeable bitch. Smart, who just won an Emmy for Best Supporting Actress for this role, makes Regina the queen of backhanded compliments, and her frequently patronizing demeanor is hilarious:
Regina: "Dena, your mother's dead."
Dena: "...that's true..."
Regina: "And my daughter's out gallivanting. Do you see how we're both suffering?"
Dena: "...very similar. Yeah."
Regina: "You were always like a second daughter to me. Have I ever told you that?"
Dena: "You rarely speak to me."
It's funny in writing, but the delivery makes the lines soar. McCarthy is amazing at suffering in silence, her quiet tone, nervous laughter and subtle expressions a real gift to the show (when Sam says "Dena, I'm not gonna stay somewhere where I'm not wanted," Dena advises "It's not that hard. You get used to it."). But this is Applegate's stage, and she commands it well. She's charming and clever, goofy and sexy, innocent and evil. I hope we get to see more of Bad Sam in Season 2--it's a joy to see the actress take out her claws, and the flashback scenes are a venomous treat (love the Blackhawks game scene!). The only area that doesn't serve Applegate quite as well are the sequences that have Sam in frantic emotional overdrive, her fast, high-pitched outbursts sometimes not feeling as authentic as the rest of her performance.
Much of the show revolves around Sam's relationship with her on-again/off-again boyfriend, the long suffering Todd (Barry Watson of What About Brian), a photographer who lives in her apartment and soon has a new girlfriend (Kiele Sanchez shines in four episodes). Todd is kind and caring, and isn't quite sure what to make of the new Sam. As she tries to figure out her feelings for him, she also plays the field--and turns from Eddie Cibrian, Jerry O'Connell and Timothy Olyphant provide some season high points.
A few more men surround Sam: father Frank (Kevin Dunn) is in frequent "Yes, dear!" mode with Regina ("I spend a lot of time not thinking about my emotions. It's hard work, but it pays off"), while doorman/aspiring screenwriter Frank (Tim Russ) tries to impart words of wisdom through his semi-loathsome eye rolls. Also along for the ride is Rick Hoffman as boss Chase Chapman, a character I hope becomes a regular: His romance with Dena is just what she needs to break out of her shell, a subplot that prompts warm-hearted smiles. But the men are just a sideshow here: Samantha Who? is a showcase for funny ladies, each character performed by an actress on top of her game.
The amnesia angle can get a little tiresome (and confusing: why does Sam remember what a Canadian accent is but not a bobblehead?). But Samantha Who? can easily thrive with it or without it: The show has a strong base of characters that don't need the narrative trick to ultimately grow and flourish. Samantha Who? is also structured to share life lessons as Sam re-learns them, closing each show with bits of wisdom like "Today is all we can control. We do today right, we may even have a shot at tomorrow!" and "So a bob on the head does make you free to change who you are. But there are curves in the road along the way. And no matter how far you've gone to be who you want to be, who you were is always behind you...and closer than they appear." It's a cheesy approach that sometimes feels forced, but it's well-intentioned.
The show gets better as the season progresses, but each episode has a lot to laugh at--and becomes stronger when it aims for slightly absurd territory, like an episode where Sam becomes a criminal. The top-notch cast is given increasingly funnier material, and my favorite episodes are the final three. The series was interrupted by the writers' strike (it has 15 episodes, not 22), but unlike many shows, it returned to provide six new episodes afterward, adding a nice sense of closure to the season. But the story isn't the show's selling point--the strength of Samantha Who? is the engaging performances of its women. While Regina tells Sam "You don't play adorable--it comes off as snide," the same can't be said of Applegate and her fabulous female co-stars. They're all just so dang fun, bubbly and charismatic, and play off each other with sensational synergy--making the show too cute to resist.
The 15 episodes (averaging 21:30 each) arrive on two discs:
1. Pilot (aired October, 2007) After being the victim of a hit and run, Sam awakens to the shock of everyone that she doesn't remember any of them, not even her parents who were standing over her bedside.
2. The Job (aired October 22, 2007) It's Samantha's first day back to work and her first board meeting gives her a shocking look at just how cutthroat and competitive she really was.
3. The Wedding (aired October 29, 2007) Sam attends the wedding of one of her so-called friends, as a bridesmaid, only to realize that she forgot that she had been uninvited by the bride earlier.
4. The Virgin (aired November 5, 2007) Since Samantha has no memories of the past, including her sexual experiences, she is faced with the decision of waiting this time for the right guy to come along, or to experiment.
5. The Restraining Order (aired November 12, 2007) Sam learns that one of her ex-boyfriends has a restraining order out against her. She wonders if her poor relationship with her father is the cause of her need for constant attention.
6. The Hypnotherapist (aired November 19, 2007) As a last ditch effort to try and regain some of her lost memory, Sam seeks professional help from a hypnotherapist, but doesn't get the help she expected. Sam hears a bombshell confession from Todd.
7. The Hockey Date (aired November 26, 2007) Regina sets Samantha up on a blind date with the man who is refinishing her floors. Sam turns to Todd for advice when she leads the guy to think she is an avid hockey fan.
8. The Car (aired December 3, 2007) Sam gets her father's car into an accident. Regina discovers clues about the accident and uses that as blackmail to force Sam to model at a party.
9. The Break-Up (aired December 10, 2007) Sam thinks she's in love with Kevin and steps things up a bit, but it may prove to be more than Kevin can handle.
10. The Girlfriend (aired April 7, 2008) Sam is forced to move back in with Todd and his new girlfriend after she finds out she could face an eviction because she sublet her apartment. Regina and Dena bond when Sam misses a makeover night.
11. The Boss (aired April 14, 2008) The wealthy owner of the real estate firm that Sam and Andrea work at threatens to divide the friends.
12. The Butterflies (aired April 21, 2008) Samantha finds out about an endangered butterfly habitat and needs to stop her boss and the firm's construction project that would kill them. She decides to use the unaware Dena for help.
13. The Gallery Show (aired April 28, 2008) Sam is going to Todd's photo exhibit, but doesn't want to go alone, so she asks a stranger to join her.
14. The Affair (aired May 5, 2008) Samantha is suspicious about Regina's actions, which lead her to believe her mom is having an affair. But she's not alone...
15. The Birthday (aired May 12, 2008) Samantha is beginning to think that Chloe is using the sympathy card by saying her aunt is sick just so Todd won't break up with her. Andrea and Regina are having several disagreements over how to plan Samantha's birthday party.
The show arrives in an anamorphic 1.78:1 transfer that is very strong. There's a soft base to the lighting, but one of the show's strengths is its bold and colorful visual style, brought to life with this transfer. From the lighting in one of the show's regular nightclub settings to Applegate's and Esposito's clothes, the image is frequently filled with bursts of eye-catching color.
The 5.1 track is also crisp and strong, even if there isn't much use of the rear channels. Subtitles are also provided in English, French and Spanish.
Here comes the main disappointment with the package. At first glance, it looks like you're in for a treat. You get an audio commentary with Applegate and executive producers Peter Traugott and Donald Todd, who created the show with producer Cecelia Ahern (of P.S. I Love You fame). But it's only on the pilot episode. It's a fun listen with a few interesting tidbits: Todd's apartment is the same set that Watson used as his apartment in What About Brian, and the "lemon squares lady" in the pilot is the wife of the man who voices SpongeBob SquarePants. Both producers rightly praise Applegate's performance, which has some nuances people might not appreciate (like her differing physical movements that reflect the comfort levels of the two personas, and her ability--like much of the cast--to make simple lines funny). "This one is the acting," jokes Applegate of the kinder Sam. "The (bad) one is like rolling out of bed."
We also learn about all the extra footage they shoot for each episode, including nine extra minutes on the pilot--which makes it odd that the deleted scenes only include seven sequences totaling about six minutes (with brief video introductions by Todd, who also notes that another episode had nine extra minutes that were cut). What gives?! Where's all that extra footage?! The scenes we do see provide a few laughs, so it would be nice to see all of the footage that didn't make the final cut. Even more disappointing is the blooper reel "Samantha Whoops?", which starts with a cute minute and seven second intro to whet your appetite...oh, wait...that's it?! You have to be kidding! We don't even get to see the bloopers in full context, and there has to be a lot more of them. What a waste...
Also provided is a six-page booklet called "The Good Bad: Love, Life & Career" booklet "written" by Sam, Andrea and Dena, who provide advice; and trailers, mostly for other ABC shows.
Even though the story is sometimes a little too safe and sweet with the material, the performances in Samantha Who?--led by Christina Applegate and her three fantastic female co-stars--are incredibly adorable, charming and fun. The women bounce off each other beautifully, and the show is far too cute to resist. Recommended.