TV Review: 'Samantha Who?'

The question with "Samantha Who?" is whether its premise -- amnesia victim tries to piece her life back together -- is sturdy enough to sustain what in success would be several years on the air.

For two episodes, at least, it works just fine, thanks in no small part to a very charming lead performance from Christina Applegate and support from a very strong cast. But that question still lingers: How long will an audience accept that Applegate's character still can't remember her past?

The show's producers insist that "Samantha Who?," which premieres at 9:30 p.m. ET Monday on ABC, is really not about a woman with amnesia; it's about a woman trying to discover, 30-some years into her life, who she really is. And that's certainly true -- part of what makes the show funny (and it is often quite funny) is watching Applegate's Samantha Newly try to reconcile what she wants to be with what she's been before.

It's also true, though, that the show repeatedly mines Samantha's condition -- after a car accident, she awakes from an eight-day coma with no recollection of who she is -- for jokes. Over the first two episodes, Samantha is frequently appalled when she learns of things she used to do -- and again, several of those bits bring laughs. But it's also not hard to imagine that idea wearing thin by, say, episode seven.

Here's hoping, though, that the writers find a way to tweak that premise, because there's more to enjoy in "Samantha Who?" than to nitpick.

For starters, Applegate is entirely winning as the bewildered Sam. She gets a number of chances to put her physical-comedy skills to use, but the character also allows her some great reactive moments as those around her try to shape her into the person they want her to be.

Her self-absorbed parents, played by Kevin Dunn and the wonderful Jean Smart, just want their little girl back (they haven't spoken in two years). Her wicked best friend Andrea (Jennifer Esposito) is glad to have her wingwoman and drinking buddy back in the game (even though Sam's in AA). Dena (Melissa McCarthy) wants back in her life, even though she and Sam haven't been friends since seventh grade. And her boyfriend Todd (Barry Watson) -- well, he's not sure he's even her boyfriend anymore.

They all want a piece of her (even Todd, maybe), and there seems to be strong chemistry across the cast -- really, there's not a weak link here. Smart's Regina somehow manages to make her daughter's condition a burden for her, and Esposito gleefully digs into her bad-girl enabler. Tim Russ, who plays the doorman in Sam's building, provides some deadpan perspective as the one person who doesn't really care what Samantha's deal is.

NBC's "My Name Is Earl" also sprang from a seemingly limiting premise, with Earl (Jason Lee) seemingly doomed to cross an item off his karmic list week after week after week. Yet it's managed to break free of the list on a number of occasions and keep itself fresh. If the folks behind "Samantha Who?" can do something similar, the show could grow into something ABC hasn't had for a while: a bona fide, consistently funny comedy.