`Samantha': OK blend of sweet, tart

TV Review

October 15, 2007|By Tim Swift | Tim Swift,SUN REPORTER

Baked goods inexplicably loom large in the new ABC comedy Samantha Who? Birthday cakes, lemon squares, cupcakes and muffins: Nary a pastry is neglected. Seriously, they trigger the pilot's cathartic meltdown.

That meltdown is inevitable after the title character (Christina Applegate) wakes up from a hit-and-run accident with amnesia. Now she's a good person trapped in the body of a vicious vixen who juggled lovers, lifted lattes and terrorized underlings. The brisk single-camera sitcom, which premieres tonight, strives for the comedic gold mine of an unlikable central character while fulfilling the need for a good-natured leading lady.

In short, Samantha Who? wants to have its cake and eat it, too. And the clever conceit is mostly successful in the series' opening episodes. But having it both ways has its costs, making Samantha smart and serendipitous, but never truly great.

The show always seems to be on the verge of a guffaw but never risks being naughty enough to get there, leaving the viewer with a pleasant snicker-filled half-hour.

Like most pilots, tonight's episode is bloated with exposition, but producers do their best to move things along with handy title cards and a voice-over. By show No. 2, the narrative crutches recede a bit and characters are allowed to breathe. Namely, Sam goes back to work, but she doesn't quite know what her firm does.

A versatile comedic actress, Applegate holds up her end -and more - but her supporting cast mostly falls down on the job. It's only Applegate - playing her former spiteful self in once-a-show flashbacks - who really crackles on screen.

Those looking for the delicious malcontents of Arrested Development or Seinfeld will be disappointed.

Sam's boozehound gal pal Andrea (Jennifer Esposito ) should steal every scene she's in, but Esposito and the writers somehow confuse wickedly funny with just plain mean. She feeds Sam a cocktail knowing she's an alcoholic and tells her co-workers that Sam was in rehab, not the hospital. Her best "zinger" involves making fun of dwarfs, but the joke's never on her.

Childhood chum Dena (Melissa McCarthy, a Gilmore Girls refugee) and estranged boyfriend Todd (Barry Watson) are big on doe-eyed sweetness but short on punch lines.

The only one giving Applegate a hand is the excellent Jean Smart, who plays her mother, Regina. Her deadpan restraint, tinged with vulnerability, cuts beyond the prevalent cliched characterizations and creates a sense of comedic intrigue.

When discussing the possibility of donating Sam's organs, Regina coldly says that everything but the eyes was considered. "Never the eyes. I couldn't look at anyone. I'd always wonder," she says.

At times, Samantha Who? might be too sweet for its own good, but such tart mother-and-daughter interplay might be the prefect preservative to keep this calculated confection afloat.

tim.swift@baltsun.com

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