Lady Dynamite Blows Up

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It’s hard to say exactly what the title of Maria Bamford’s new Netflix series is meant to signify. It could be Bamford’s manic depression—her sense that, at any moment, everything in her life could explode. It could be her fear, common among introverts, that if she doesn’t please everyone around her, her fragile relationships might come crashing down like a demolished building. Or it could be the fact that Bamford, who has toiled in C-list obscurity for years, is finally, at long last, blowing up.

Created by Pam Brady (frequent Trey Parker and Matt Stone collaborator) and Mitchell Hurwitz (creator of Arrested Development, on which Bamford appeared as DeBrie Bardeaux, a recovering meth addict and Tobias Fünke’s love interest in season four), Lady Dynamite is currently available on Netflix among its new crop of original series. The show features plenty of recurring and guest stars, including Ana Gasteyer, Lennon Parham (recently of Veep), Bridget Everett, Ed Begley Jr. and, my personal favorite, Dean Cain. (The list goes on, but this last name was particularly important in my own surrender to the charms of Lady Dynamite: Three episodes in, and not yet hooked, I learned that Superman himself was about to make an appearance, and the 13-year-old in me compelled me to keep watching.)

While Lady Dynamite does inevitably feature some stand-up-comic-show clichés, it is in many ways unique. Like other comedians’ shows before it, it is loosely based on Bamford’s real life. She really did grow up in Duluth, Minnesota, where part of the show is set, and like her character (also named Maria Bamford) she spent time in therapy, diagnosed with bipolar II disorder. She is, of course, a comic in real life, and one who is very similar to the hesitant, self-conscious, people-pleasing person she plays on TV. All of this is interesting enough, but it’s the way that Lady Dynamite combines surrealism, meta-fiction and autobiography that makes it truly exciting.

LADY DYNAMITE, Maria Bamford, 'White Trash', (Season 1, ep. 103, aired May 20, 2016). photo: Saeed Adyani / ©Netflix / courtesy Everett Collection
Maria Bamford in Lady Dynamite.

Whether or not you like Bamford’s TV character is crucial to whether you’ll enjoy the show. Each episode starts with Maria’s agent, Bruce Ben-Bacharach (Fred Melamed), offering her a bad gig—a spot in a Japanese commercial for something called Pussy Noodle, for instance, or the host role on a show called Lock Up a Broad, in which women are locked up and made to apologize for things like not having dinner ready on time. Maria’s moral compass tells her these projects are wrong—they’re misogynistic and racist, they promote irresponsible behaviors and go against her core beliefs—yet when pressed even slightly she caves and does whatever she believes she has to do to make other people happy.

The same is true in her personal life: Bamford would rather say “I love you” or propose marriage than break up with a boyfriend and hurt his feelings (though in this particular case the proposal was to a slightly puffy, but still pretty hot, Dean Cain, so that was probably the right choice). In the case of her girlfriends, Maria will buy a house she doesn’t want or go on a date with a bisexual meth addict rather than disappoint.

To be honest, such obviously bad choices and low self-esteem can be a little hard to take as a viewer. It prompts a lot of head shaking and eye-rolling. Bamford’s character may not be the smartest on TV, but she is well-intentioned, and it is in that gap—between altruistic motives and a lack of common sense—that the humor of Lady Dynamite can be found.

The show is not laugh-out-loud funny, at least not to me. It’s more of a “comedy in theory”—a term coined by Matt Zoller Seitz in a recent article for Vulture. According to Zoller Seitz, it is comedy, not drama, which now excavates and represents the most troubling aspects of our society. In the Lady Dynamite episode “White Trash,” for example, Bamford stars alongside Mira Sorvino and the Lucas brothers in a fictional sitcom in which the two African American men play garbage collectors and the two white women belong to the wealthy White family. Bamford, trying to be racially sensitive, talks to the writers and has the roles reversed, resulting not only in smaller parts for the brothers, but also in extremely sexist dialogue for the women. In the episode “Josue,” Bamford feels guilty about the amount of money she has made doing ads for Checklist (a Target stand-in) and agrees to work for the company’s charity in Mexico. Teaching English to Checklist factory workers, Maria fails to recognize that the textbook she’s teaching from serves primarily to reinforce unfair and unsafe labor practices, reminding the workers (in English) that their managers are always watching and that good employees keep their mouths shut about safety violations. Topics like these provoke discomfort and anxiety rather than the easy laughs of a show like Friends or How I Met Your Mother.

Like its Netflix brethren (Master of None, Orange Is the New Black, etc.), Lady Dynamite’s purpose is not to provide a break from real life, but instead to mine the humor available in a truthful representation of reality. The manic-depressive pace of the show contributes to that end. As we move between scenes of madcap energy (indicated with sparkly screens as if from a silent movie filmed in the 1970s) and those that take place during Maria’s mental breakdown (represented by a tonal shift from bright colors to a dulled gray-blue), we are given some sense of what it might be like to suffer from bipolar II disorder. One of the things that makes mental illness so difficult, Bamford has said, is that people don’t talk about it. So she’s talking about it and, on Lady Dynamite, giving the viewer the chance to feel it, too. It feels funny, even if you might not laugh.

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Photos: Everett Collection