And Why I’m Pulling for Her
The TV industry’s had some major losses the last several months. From Yaphet Kotto and Jessica Walter earlier this year to the passing of two of Night Court’s greatest talents Charles Robinson and Markie Post in the past month. But yesterday from a simple tweet came a blow that hit me very hard.
Christina Applegate, one of the greatest comic actresses in the history of television, told the world that she has been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. This most well-known autoimmune disorder has had more than its share of famous patients, most tragically Richard Pryor, who struggled with the disease for more than a decade from his initial diagnosis before passing away in 2005.
In Applegate’s case, it hits me harder even then Bob Odenkirk’s heart attack a month ago. Part of it has to do with her relative youth (she’s not even fifty yet). More of it has to do with the fact that Applegate has, in a way, strange way has always seemed to be there in a way even actors and comics who’ve had longer careers have been.
I’ll admit a large part of it has to do with her breakout role in Married…With Children. It wasn’t just that the series was around practically since the time I really started watching TV at all, its that for much of my teens and twenties, the series was always in syndication somewhere, usually around the time I was watching Jeopardy. So every commercial break, I always seemed to run into the misfortunes of the Bundy family, so much of which revolved around Kelly. And I’ll be honest, it wasn’t until well after the series ended its initial run that I realized what the writers of the series were really trying to do with Married…They were trying to put together a true satire of the traditional family sitcom and they were so good at it that I think millions of viewers (myself included) missed the point of the writing and the performances. Like so many great comics, I didn’t realize until at least five years after the show had ended, the true genius of Applegate’s work. It takes a serious amount of talent to play that dumb.
By that time, of course, Applegate had moved on to sometimes bigger and often better things. I’ve written quite often how little use I had for Friends, then or now, but I found Applegate’s turn as Rachel particularly self-involved sister truly hysterically and actually worthy of the Emmy she won for Best Guest Actress in a Comedy. By all rights, she should’ve won at least one more in the last decade.
Samantha Who? was a superb comic vehicle for Applegate as a woman who spend two years in a coma and wakes up with no memory of her life beforehand. Applegate was a diamond backed up by one of the best casts in memory — Barry Watson, Kevin Dunn, Melissa McCarthy (at the exact halfway point between the end of Gilmore Girls and the start of Mike & Molly) and Jean Smart, who did win an Emmy for her work as Samantha’s mother. It was a superbly funny show that had the grave misfortune of premiering right on the cusp of the 2007 writers strike). Like so many ABC series, the network renewed it as an act of faith… and then aired no reruns in the year after its first season ended. And like so many potentially brilliant ABC shows (pour one out for Pushing Daisies and Dirty Sexy Money), the audience forgot about it and it was cancelled after its second season.
Applegate’s next vehicle wasn’t as widely acclaimed, but in my opinion was just as funny. Up All Night was a hysterical NBC sitcom about two thirtyish parents (Applegate and the always wonderful Will Arnett) trying to balance work and family. Applegate actually had the better role in the first second as an executive producer to a daytime talk show host, wonderfully portrayed by Maya Rudolph. It was truly one of those brilliant comic series that NBC produced during this era. Unlike Parks and Rec or Community, however, the network was not willing to overlook its low ratings and keep it on the air for more than two seasons.
It was nearly six years before we saw Applegate in another comedy series. But as those of who have seen Dead to Me, it was more than worth the wait. A blistering funny comedy with one of the darkest subjects that Netflix, Applegate has truly found her perfect match — Linda Cardellini, another actress who started as a teenager and has starred in some of the best series on TV (though in her case, they’ve mostly been dramas). The comedy is built on one of the most unlikely friendships possible between Jen (Applegate) a widow who really has anger issues and Judy (Cardellini) a very cheerful woman who has just suffered her fourth miscarriage. The friendship they form is unlikely from the start and we quickly see mixed in death. (If you haven’t seen this series, you really should so I’m not going to give anything away. Start bingeing it now.) Applegate is both hysterically funny and extremely raw emotionally, and while I doubted the reasoning for her first Emmy nomination in 2019 not only do I support it now, I fully back the one she got last year (ditto Cardellini’s)
Perhaps dealing with the really dark territory of this series may have given Applegate the props to deal with the diagnosis she has recently received. She certainly tried to sound optimistic in the tweet she sent the world. I know there are various courses of MS that affect people (the television world got an education on it watching The West Wing) and there are new treatments and medicines for it every year. But I’m not going to lie. This hurts. Not quite as badly as Alex Trebek’s diagnosis of pancreatic cancer two years ago, but it does sting. I hope that she can find a way to keep going and that, like with Michael J. Fox, she finds a way to keep working as long as she possibly can. Her big break came as part of one of America’s most famous sitcom families. And in a sense, she’s never stopped being part of mine.