Written by Denis Faye
It's nice to know that, as hour-long drama characters meet untimely deaths or experience radical life shifts with increasing regularity, television audiences can still look to 30-minute comedies as safe, happy places where nothing changes and everyone knows your name.
Or so we thought, until Samantha Who? came along. Christina Applegate plays the eponymous Samantha, an amnesiac that discovers she was a first-class jerk in her previous life. Given this second chance, Samantha throws her life into complete upheaval.
While mysterious island strangers don't drag Sam's friends off to their deaths or anything, the 30-minute, single-camera show shifts dynamically every episode as Samantha evolves. “No matter how hard we try to not serialize it, this is a linear story about a person who's starting from zero,” explains veteran writer-producer Donald Todd, who came in to oversee Samantha Who? after ABC bought the pitch from novelist Cecelia Ahern. “Everything Samantha adds to her consciousness affects everything else she does. In fact, one of the reasons I agreed to do this show was that the storytelling would be ongoing, moving outward from the pilot forever.”
It's a major break from the traditional circular half-hour structure, where characters might learn a lesson each week, but ultimately nothing changes “If you're doing Cheers or Friends, that's the whole purpose, to get to a comfortable place,” Todd said, “but this show just doesn't allow itself to do that.”
Todd took a moment from showrunning back-to-back seasons of Samantha Who? (as in, without a summer break) to talk to the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about the fun and the frustration of throwing out the 30-minute television comedy rulebook.
You've combined the challenge of hitting single-camera, 30-minute show joke beats with a season arc and character evolution. How's the working out for ya?
Photo: © 2008 American Broadcasting Companies, Inc.
Christina Applegate in Samantha Who?
It's the most challenging show that I've ever done. You do need to be funny, but you have a fairly serious premise. As much as we can joke about amnesia being a hoary convention of soap operas or Gilligan's Island, it's a fairly serious condition to deal with realistically. So, to deal with that condition and still get laughs requires a very careful approach. And by the time you've dealt with the seriousness and the comedy, your time is up.
It's not a show that works off the strength of the last joke we tell. It's got to be a character piece. It's a character study about one person, but also all of her relationships. That, and to be funny, is a challenge.
How did knowing you'd be working with Christina Applegate influence you from a development standpoint?
It was developed without her. It was developed with no cast, but all along, I had Christina in mind, but only because you have to have somebody in mind, somebody to write to. She had already said no to comedy that year, but then somehow she came back into the picture. But the development of the script had nothing to do with her; it just required someone with her abilities.
You have show arcs and, obviously, a season arc, but do you have an even larger arc set up?
No. And I like that you say we “obviously” have a season arc. I wish it were that obvious! We have a plan for season two, a clear plan, but it's constantly evolving because everything she does affects everything else she does. My model for this year is If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, a children's book that shows a sequence of events, how one thing affects another event. That's how I'm looking at this season. She's got to move out of her parents' home, which means she's got to move back into her home, which means she's got to resolve her relationship with her boyfriend who lives in her home, etc. Everything she does affects everything else she does. It's linear. We have a plan, but it goes only as far as the horizon. I want the opportunity for the discovery to constantly be there, although that makes our job much harder. I would love every day to walk into a show where we know what the premise is, and we just write an episode along that premise, and then we go home, but this is much more complex.
So you're just slightly ahead of the audience?
Yeah. In order to approach this season quickly -- we're doing season two not just on the heels of season one, but while we're finishing season one -- there's no time to arc out the entire season. To go into it, we had to know where we're going, so we're 13 episodes ahead in our minds, but I don't want to be locked into that. If episode three leads to a fantastic episode four that we weren't expecting, then I want to be able to tell that.
However, it's serialized. You can drop in on episode five having not seen anything before that and pick up on it fairly quickly.
How long can you keep this up?
Because it's linear, there should be no reason for a terminus here. If we depended on amnesia, that would wear out, and probably already has, fairly quickly. But because we look at it as a show about a woman starting completely from scratch and going outward, there's no reason that should stop at all. The Mary Tyler Moore Show is a very good example. There's a woman who moved away from a life she had to start a new life. But it wasn't every week about, “I wonder if I should go back to Minneapolis?” Once she started that life and started those relationships, we became fans of those relationships. They ended that show after seven years because they wanted to. This one is not a premise, it's not like she's going to get all her memories back one day. She'll get some memories back as she goes, but it's about a woman who, every day, has to decide who she is. So the wish fulfillment part of the show is, “If I could start over and be better than I was, what would I do?” And I think she can carry that burden for the audience for a very long time.
Do you think the show will continue to be this dynamic? Or will it settle into a groove after a few seasons?
Wouldn't it be great if it did! This changeability is hard work, but keeps the audience involved. I would like to find a place where we have certain expectations of the character and she acts along those lines, but I certainly don't see that happening anywhere in season two. But, yeah, by the time we get to season three, there's an expectation that we can just enjoy the relationships for a while. Right now, every episode is a pilot, and it feels like that because she's changing.
It's nice to make the audience work a little bit.
I think that the audience wants to right now. If they're going to try to discover a new comedy, there's got to be a reason to draw them in.
But we're not going to do what Lost does. We're not going to baffle them and upset them. You don't go to comedy for that. I think that here, there has to be a comfort eventually. And I think our comfort is Christina as Sam. She's the lead, and she's a fantastic TV friend to have. We feel for her and we feel comfortable with her.