Attempting to milk the funny from amnesia, “Samantha Who?” seems better suited premise-wise to a romantic comedy than an ongoing series, albeit one owing a debt to “While You Were Sleeping.” Christina Applegate’s title character awakens a blank slate following an eight-day coma, her horror growing as she gradually discovers what a mega-bitch she was before the car hit her. This raises existential questions of whether Sam can redeem herself, but a more immediate concern will be staving off cancellation, since by the end of the second episode, the thought of memory erasure doesn’t sound that bad.
With no recollection of her life before, Samantha is understandably overwhelmed as the pieces begin falling into place: She’s been estranged from her doting parents (the show’s one bright spot as played by an underused Jean Smart and Kevin Dunn), has been cruel to an old friend (Melissa McCarthy) and has taken for granted good-guy boyfriend Todd (“What About Brian’s” Barry Watson).
Sam’s impulses to be nicer, however, flummox best pal Andrea (Jennifer Esposito), her equally shallow, club-hopping partner in snooty tramp-osity. Eventually, Sam is so desperate for advice that she solicits it from her doorman (Tim Russ), though he clearly doesn’t like her much, either.
As structured by series creators Donald Todd and novelist Cecelia Ahern, the show is meant derive comedy from all the things Sam doesn’t know about herself, from the food she enjoys to (in the second episode) what she does for a living. (At work she’s been as tyrannical with her fellow employees as with those in her personal orbit.)
The only decent moments come from Smart and Dunn — the former dense enough to think that yelling will help jog her daughter’s faulty recall powers, the latter constantly introducing himself. If the series were redesigned so that Sam went home and just stayed there, there might be a ray of hope for it.
As is, though, the series seeks a tone of whimsy and settles for irritating, leaving Applegate to look perpetually baffled and perhaps longing for the subtlety of “Married … With Children,” without doing much to humanize her character. The dilemma thus becomes less about whether Sam can become a better person and more about why anybody should care.
ABC has done the show one favor, sandwiching it between “Dancing With the Stars” and “The Bachelor,” about the only way to create a supporting hammock for a new sitcom on a network lacking a single established half-hour. Unless the series can tap into something primal with women, however — perhaps by developing Sam and Todd’s interrupted relationship, which is pretty tepid thus far — “Samantha Who?” could demonstrate that most viewers do remember the important stuff, beginning with how to operate a remote control.