Executive Producer, ABC's Samantha Who?
Back in May, ABC announced a fall 2008 primetime schedule which notably and unfortunately contained only one regularly scheduled comedy. Then, in September, a few weeks before the network’s lone laffer Samantha Who was set to make its second season debut, I caught up with the show’s head writer/showrunner Donald Todd at the New York Television Festival.
Pre-Samantha, veteran TV writer Todd had been the man in charge of the short-lived but beloved Life As We Know It, and was most recently a writer on the first season of Ugly Betty. A few days after our talk, one of Todd’s actresses, Jean Smart, would go on to win a Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Emmy for her role as Samantha’s mother. Here, Todd talks about the process of producing this star vehicle for Smart and Christina Applegate, ABC’s sole sitcom success of the season.
Must Hear TV: Now that Samantha has survived her first season of amnesia, what are some of the things we can expect from her for season 2?
Donald Todd: One of my favorite episodes is the one we’re leading with, and that came from Christina. The dance episode ["So I Think I Can Dance."] Christina said to me last year, “Wouldn’t it be funny if she forgot how to dance?” That was it. So we developed this entire story that involved ballroom dancing and a massive amount of rehearsal. And she said to me during it, “I meant in the club, if I looked like a dork.” So we added that scene, too. The whole thing took two weeks of rehearsal. And it was very emotional for Christina, because she had not danced since Sweet Charity [on Broadway, in 2005], which had been such a high. So when we did this it was a big deal. And then Jean Smart who’s not a dancer has the fear of people who aren’t dancers of looking silly, so we worked very hard, and they did a great job. Cybill Shepherd, who had also never danced before, is in this episode. Dancing is scary. It’s exposing yourself. And people don’t like to do that. That episode was an example of amnesia playing into the story, but we also have episodes coming up that have absolutely nothing to do with that – it’s just a woman who’s naïve.
MHTV: So for that dance episode, you took something specific about amnesia – people can forget how to speak French, play the piano, how to dance – and turned that into a springboard for comedy. Is that a case where you researched that those are real, possible side-effects? Can those things happen?
DT: Absolutely. Oliver Sachs has written so much about the mind, such as how people can suddenly play music that they could never play. That kind of thing is bizarre. And we had to answer a lot of questions internally, and with the studio and network. They said, “Well how can you forget how to dance?“ And even in the room we discussed it a lot – does “forget how to dance” mean you don’t have the moves? Can you re-learn the moves, or is dance in your soul? Is it about innate talent? Those are big things -- that we then dismissed. In our rooms we have a lot of discussion but then at the end of the day we say, “we decide this” and now we move on. But at least it gets discussed. We want the show to be based in a reality. It’s not a fantasy. There are people who say that the audience will allow a show or movie one “fantasy buy.” And right now our buy is that this woman has amnesia. For example, Jason O’Mara’s character in [ABC’s new time-travel cop drama] Life On Mars. He’s going to get hit in the head and have a fantasy. But if he also met an alien, then you’re out of the show.
MHTV: You mentioned Oliver Sachs’ work. Do you have any medical or technical advisors on the show?
DT: Like most shows, Wikipedia is our technical advisor. They’re footnoted, so you can at least find the stuff. Amnesia is a condition that has so many manifestations that it’s hard to be wrong with what we do.
MHTV: So you have a big playing field. But how long can amnesia last? Does it force an expiration date for Samantha Who?
DT: We do have a lot to play with, but we also stay pretty much away from amnesia as a device for the stories. The character has amnesia, and we try to get some stories from that, but primarily it defines who she is. The fact that she doesn’t know who she was and has to redefine herself – that, you can do stories about forever. That’s what most series are. The Mary Tyler Moore Show is a good example. [Mary Richards] moved to Minneapolis, but she didn’t have to learn to speak. She just had to learn Minneapolis. And once she was in Minneapolis and had friends, it was a show about a woman who had friends but was still trying to find her way in the world. Samantha has an extreme version of “moving to Minneapolis.” And that allows us to tell stories that have an energy at the top right away. We’re not in 1970 anymore. We can’t just drift through and have people enjoy the characters. You have to fire into a story much more aggressively.
MHTV: So you have to ramp up the energy these days. Is that a function of our shorter attention spans?
DT: That, and the 50 years of watching television. We can easily talk about how the internet has ruined our attention spans, but I’ve seen a lot of sitcom stories before. I’m not going to watch them all again. So where do you get to your ideas? In this particular situation, we start with a core every single week of “Samantha needs to do something that was foreign to her.” And you could do that same show by putting someone literally in a foreign land, or just say she is in a foreign land every single day. So amnesia as a condition doesn’t affect her stories every single week, but she has it no matter what. So in season 7 she won’t be saying, “You know, I have amnesia.” Hopefully we’ll know in season 7 that her desire to change herself is moving along incrementally.
MHTV: And by season 7, will she ever become the bitch she once was? Is this a progression towards becoming a bitch again, or is she forever changed?
DT: I hope it’s a progression towards integration. I think that the fun dynamic in the show is the tension between who you want to be and who you are at the core. And the question is asked all the time: can I change who I am even if I want to? I think that’s what appeals to so many people. People often say, “Oh, I would do that so differently.” Maybe you wouldn’t. Maybe your life would go exactly the same way and you have no control over it. Maybe your life is predestined. That’s a big question to ask every single week, so we try to ask it silently of ourselves. If we ask the audience that, they would not watch. But that’s essentially what’s happening every week, the most existential question of being-ness – not a good title for the show, by the way. We rejected “Existential Being-ness” as a title.
MHTV: Test audiences didn’t respond to that, huh?
DT: I’ve been around long enough to know that test audiences like to know the name of the character. Hence “Samantha Who.” This season on the show, we have Samantha in a more aggressive approach to her life. Season 1 was – I hesitate to use the word “passive,” but she was in a receiving mode. She was finding out who she was. People came up to her and said things and she didn’t know if she had done these things. But in season 2 she says, “I can’t wait around forever, so I’m just going to make some choices.” And each week she’s going to make strong choices that are uninformed by any knowledge of who she was.
MHTV: When you talk about Samantha’s life as a voyage of self-discovery, that’s something so many people can relate to – particularly gay viewers. And with others shows on ABC like Ugly Betty and Desperate Housewives, the network seems to be showing quite a gay sensibility lately. Is that something you’re conscious of?
DT: Is there a gay sensibility? Yeah. Relatability, though, is what it comes down to at the end. There are shows that are fantasy escape shows, but at the end of the day the successful shows are relatable on some level. Mothers and daughters, gay men, single women – whoever it is -- have to see themselves in the show. And if our show had some wilder elements, it might have even more gay appeal. But it’s not the kind of writing that I do.
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