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‘Samantha Who?’ is an unlikely sitcom queen

It’s not often that a show with a female lead is TV’s most-watched comedy. The last one with that honor was “Roseanne” in the early ’90s.
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

It’s not often that a show with a female lead is TV’s most-watched comedy. The last one with that honor was “Roseanne” in the early ’90s.

“I Love Lucy” was dominant in the ’50s, of course, but Lucy without Desi in the ’60s, not so much. The only No. 1 comedy that decade with a woman on top of the credits was “Bewitched,” starring Elizabeth Montgomery as a witch named Samantha.

Now, the new top comedy also has a lead character named Samantha. She is not a witch, but is instead something that rhymes with “witch.” Or at least she was, prior to her series-starting bout of amnesia.

The oldest trick in the soap-opera plot playbook sets Samantha Newly (Christina Applegate) up for a fish-out-of-water scenario as surreal as the other Samantha marrying a mortal. Because, along with the memory loss, Sam’s head injury also apparently gave her a conscience she didn’t have before, which makes finding out about her past much more horrifyingly funny.

It may be a tough premise to buy into, but then, who ever bothered thinking about how the ’60s Samantha could turn her husband in to frog?

More brains than BundyAs a character who could become as unlikable as she is unlikely, Applegate pushes on through with a performance that is energetic, emotional and just plain wacky. The actress formerly known as Kelly Bundy is playing anything but dumb; she portrays Sam as a quick-witted and sharp woman, a person who’s capable of outsmarting almost anybody, including herself.

And Samantha’s state of mind is perpetually on display, with her voice-over narration (a device that’s very common on single-camera sitcoms these days) supplemented by on-screen titles representing her handwritten notes. Those notes are constantly being re-written as she explores this strange alien world that is supposed to be her own life.

Applegate is surrounded by a talented supporting cast playing mostly un-supportive characters. Jean Smart, who was upstaged by everyone else on “Designing Women” only to make a big comeback last year as the “crazy first lady” on “24,” channels manic energy into Sam’s self-absorbed mother. Likable Kevin Dunn plays her dad as a sidekick, delivering the show’s most-repeated line: “Apologize to your mother, Sam.”

Some me of the show’s funniest moments come from a tug-of-war over Samantha between two opposites. On one side, Jennifer Esposito is her “AbFab”-styled friend and proud enabler of the old, bad Sam. Melissa McCarthy also brings humor as a rediscovered childhood buddy who deftly balances being the voice of goodness and niceness with hints of creepy obsessiveness.

Barry Watson’s distrustful ex-boyfriend Todd doesn’t appear often, but his role is still more interesting than whatever he did on his last series, the also question-marked “What About Brian?”  And former “Star Trek” star Tim Russ’ doorman, mixing some leftover Vulcan wisdom and stoicism with New York snark, is the best peripheral sitcom character since the janitor on “Scrubs.”

No plot twist untwistedAfter watching the pilot, I wondered whether this show could maintain the outlandish premise and stay funny, and what of many possible directions it would end up going. Now, a half-dozen episodes in, “Samantha Who?” is just getting better, and is doing so by going in all directions at once.

And as Samantha’s constantly crossed-out and corrected notes demonstrate, this is one sitcom that will leave no possible plot twist untwisted (even if viewers realize after the show is over that they should have seen half of them coming).

Will Sam ultimately get back together with Todd, or just keep using the closet space of their previously shared apartment? How long will the development company she works for put up with her do-gooder activity?

Will she make a list of everyone she needs to make amends with and become an upper-class “My Name Is Earl?” How long can she keep a balance between her two opposite friends? Will she ever find out who was driving the car that hit her? When will she learn enough about her own past to stop taking notes?

Taking on Charlie SheenPerhaps more importantly, is “Samantha Who?” going to stay the No. 1 sitcom? Critics say the show is riding on the white tie and coattails of “Dancing With the Stars.” By the end of this month, that won’t be the case, and “Samantha Who?” will be in direct competition with the previous No. 1 sitcom, “Two and a Half Men.”

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While she may appear to be outnumbered two-and-a-half to one (and facing a potentially lengthy writer’s strike with far fewer rerunnable episodes as “Men”), Samantha has some numbers on her side. She already has a lead of over 15 percent (or the equivalent of two-and-seven-eighths men), and the week-to-week ratings are trending slightly upward. And the show is doing a lot better holding onto the “Dancing” audience (especially with the all-important 18-49 demographic) than the last time Christina Applegate got a plum timeslot. Does anyone even remember her show “Jesse,” one of the many shows NBC used to fill the half-hour between “Friends” and “Seinfeld”?

You don’t need amnesia to forget that, but you would to forget “Samantha Who?” which increasingly has the potential to become a memorable piece of TV history.

When so many new ideas fall flat, it’s a delight to see an old cliché reworked in a fresh new way. But don’t tell that to network executives; they’ll just try to revive “Bewitched” again.