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Before Netflix’s Dead to Me, watch Christina Applegate in Samantha Who?

Before Netflix’s Dead to Me, watch Christina Applegate in Samantha Who?

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It’s an earlier comedic role that also has her reinventing herself after trauma

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There are so many streaming options available these days, and so many conflicting recommendations, that it’s hard to see through all the crap you could be watching. Each Friday, The Verge’s Cut the Crap column simplifies the choice by sorting through the overwhelming multitude of movies and TV shows on subscription services, and recommending a single perfect thing to watch this weekend.

What to watch

“Out of Africa,” a season 2 episode of Samantha Who?, an ABC sitcom that aired from 2007 to 2009. Christina Applegate stars as Samantha Newly, a successful but colossally selfish Chicago realtor who develops amnesia after an accident and undergoes a personality change, becoming a kinder person in reaction to stories and fleeting memories of how obnoxious she once was. In “Out of Africa,” Sam is embarrassed when she realizes she can’t follow through on a pledge to do charity work overseas. To preserve her new image as a do-gooder, she pretends she took the trip, while secretly partying in Miami with her friends Andrea (Jennifer Esposito) and Dena (Melissa McCarthy). Then an outbreak of violence in the country where she’s supposed to be threatens to expose the lie.

Why watch now?

Because the first season of Dead to Me debuts on Netflix this weekend.

In this new show, Christina Applegate plays Jen, a realtor whose life has been upended by a traumatic event — much like Samantha Newly in Samantha Who?. In Jen’s case, the loss of her husband in a hit-and-run sends her into a dark spiral of grief, rage, and self-medication. When she meets the similarly broken Judy (played by Linda Cardellini), the two women go on a rampage through Jen’s upscale suburb, goosing each other into excessive misbehavior… all while trying to protect some shocking secrets.

Dead to Me pings between grim melodrama and dark comedy, which are two modes Applegate can play well. It’s been fun following her career, given that at nearly every step of the way, she’s skirted obstacles that have stymied a lot of young Hollywood stars. Applegate was making movies and guesting on TV shows when she was still in elementary school, but she never became some burned-out, embittered former child star. As a teenager, she landed the role of the air-headed party gal Kelly Bundy on the long-running Fox sitcom Married… with Children, but she avoided being stereotyped as a ditz for the rest of her career.

Initially, Samantha Who? looked like it was going to be Applegate’s signature TV project. Arriving just three years after she wowed audiences with her comedy chops in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, the sitcom had everything going for it: critical support, a prime spot on the schedule after Dancing with the Stars, and a premise that allowed her to play both farce and pathos. When ABC debuted Samantha Who? in 2007, the show drew a big audience, which mostly stuck around through the first season. But a writers’ strike cut that season short, and then midway through year two, the series moved to a less desirable time slot. All this happened while Applegate was battling breast cancer.

ABC canceled Samantha Who? in 2009 after the ratings dropped precipitously in the second half of the second season — which is a shame, because as “Out of Africa” proves, the show still had a lot of juice left in its premise. The episode is set exactly one year after Samantha’s accident, and finds her taking stock of her grand self-improvement project. No longer ruthless enough to be a top-selling realtor, she considers joining relief efforts in the Sudan, and bristles when her parents (played by Jean Smart and Kevin Dunn) and her shallow best friend Andrea predict she’ll “take the easy way out,” as she always has before. When Samantha realizes she can’t bring herself to go — mainly because she’s terrified of the battery of vaccinations she has to take — she once again questions whether she’s really changed.

Who it’s for

Anyone who loves funny ladies.

The advantage of Samantha Who?’s premise is that it allows Applegate to play a hilariously terrible person in flashbacks — as in this episode, where we see her fake a grief-stricken meltdown in order to walk through a crime scene and avoid going around the block — and someone much sweeter in the present day. Yet the show never presumes that “new Samantha” is always better than who she used to be. Jean Smart is very funny in “Out of Africa,” playing a mom who misses when her daughter was too self-absorbed to risk her life helping people. And Jennifer Esposito is downright poignant, as someone who was happier when her best bud was more “fun.” Andrea is constantly urging Sam to loosen up and make bad choices again. (Regarding the scuttled Africa trip, she says Samantha deserves a fun vacation after her rough year. “Did Africa get hit by a car?”)

Fans of contemporary comedy might be most interested to see Melissa McCarthy as Dena, Sam’s childhood neighbor and best friend, who re-enters her life after the amnesia. Equal parts cheery and self-deprecating, Dena brings an unusual mix of niceness and neediness to all her scenes. McCarthy took the role right after her long run on Gilmore Girls ended. Together, she spent nearly a full decade of her career on those two shows. Then in 2011 she made Bridesmaids, and everything changed.

Where to see it

ABC’s website or app, for free with ad support. For more of Applegate being hilarious, her 2011-12 sitcom Up All Night is on NBC’s website / app, also free with ads. And while Anchorman isn’t currently available through any subscription streaming service, it’s for sale or rent at all the major digital retailers.

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