After years playing the dumb blonde in Married…With Children, Christina Applegate has grown up and finally returns to the small screen. In her new sitcom Samantha Who? she’s a woman with amnesia rediscovering who she is.
In 1987 a sitcom debuted on the Fox network called Married… With Children. It was the first primetime comedy for Rupert Murdoch’s new channel and in keeping with the overtone of Fox, it was racy, occasionally offensive and sporadically very funny. While patriarch Al Bundy was the focus of the dysfunctional family’s antics, it was the daughter, played by 17-year-old Christina Applegate, who caught the eye and had people talking.
The dumb (peroxide) blonde she played – Kelly Bundy – was the epitome of desirability in late 80s America. She perpetually looked like she was on her way to a Mötley Crüe or Guns N’ Roses gig and gave off the air that she would be the one who ends up in the band’s dressing room afterwards. Kelly became one of the poster girls for the wasted youth and dumb rockers who were to late 80s America what the hippies were in the 70s and slackers were in the early 90s. But despite the ratings success of the show, two years later the peroxide blondes of Baywatch would eclipse her (fugitively and literally) and within three years The Simpsons were Fox’s, and the nation’s, dysfunctional family of choice. Although Married… With Children would carry on until 1997 it had lost its draw long before it was eventually cancelled.
Applegate didn’t become the big star many thought she would. Her breakout sitcom Jesse was poor and faded fast and apart from a two-episode cameo on Friends (as Rachel’s little sister) she was Memorable return largely out of the televisual limelight. In fact, until appearing in the Will Ferrell film Anchorman: The Legend Of Ron Burgundy in 2004 she was beginning to fade away from the public consciousness altogether, but has now been given another shot at carrying her own sitcom with Samantha Who?
Unlike many sitcoms, there’s actually an opening premise: accident victim Samantha Newly awakes from a coma with no memory and has to rediscover who she is. The retrograde amnesia means she’s high functioning but has no recollection of anything before she was hit by a car. Her first clue to her previous self comes from overhearing her mother sob, ‘I don’t care if no one liked her, she didn’t deserve this.’
It soon transpires that prior to her accident she was a thoroughly dislikeable person working for a despicable real estate company, but is now trying to piece her life back together and use the opportunity to become a better person in the process. Her parents, Regina (Jean Smart) and Howard (Kevin Dunn), do their best to help her reclaim to her life, along with her ‘best friend’, Dena (Melissa McCarthy) who Samantha actually ditched in third grade but doesn’t remember this and Dena never stopped wanted to hang out with her. Also giving her (dubious) advice is the ever wonderful Jennifer Esposito who tries her best to get back the thoughtless party girl she once knew.
There are hints of the film Regarding Henry and the sitcom My Name Is Earl in the initial set up – a person who was once bad is now trying to be good but their past is a perpetual obstacle on the path of righteousness. The themes of self-discovery and reinvention run though this, but thankfully it never gets heavy or preachy and while the jokes are nowhere near as laugh-out-loud funny as those in Earl, there’s a sweet and entertaining nature to it all despite the slightly forced premise.
The thing is, it should be really quite horrible. It’s clearly been through the soul-draining process of being workshopped, and with a Manhattan setting, the cocktail-swilling friend and general tone of some of the humour, it all seems to suggest that it’s been intentionally skewed to appeal to women who still miss Sex And The City.
This won’t really fill the Carrie-shaped hole, although the forthcoming series Cashmere Mafia as well as Lipstick Jungle, (the latter of which is actually from SATC creator Candace Bushnell) should go some way to filling that gap. Samantha Who? works despite this, and perhaps part of that is because the minds behind it are fairly new to the sitcom genre. The creators are Donald Todd (who was a writer on Ugly Betty and little else) and, rather bizarrely, Cecelia Ahern, the author of the mawkishly sentimental novel PS, I Love You and daughter of the Irish prime minister, Bertie) but this strange pairing have come up with something that works.
There were very few new sitcoms launched in the new season over in America and most of those were average (Carpoolers, Back To You, Big Bang Theory) or just dreadful (Cavemen) but this is one of the few worth watching. It’s shot single camera-style and there’s no laughter track to ruin it, they don’t force the jokes and if there’s hugging and learning it’s done without schmaltz.
It’s not going to be the biggest hit of the year and the savage nature of American network television will probably mean that it has to improve its current ratings to get a second series. But it’s good to see someone having faith in something with a driving premise and it’s also great to see Christina Applegate back on the small screen. No longer the trashy Kelly Bundy with grass stains on her back and belts for skirts, she’s grown up and is now endearing in a whole new way. Even if Samantha Who? fails in the long term, it’s a good 30 minutes of television for now and a long-awaited return to form for a fine 80s star.•
For Time Out magazine – for original PDF click here – Samantha Who