Lady Dynamite: Maria Bamford’s Comedy of Recovery

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<i>Lady Dynamite</i>: Maria Bamford&#8217;s Comedy of Recovery

Lady Dynamite lays out the ground rules pretty quickly. In the first two minutes of the series, Maria Bamford—playing, more or less, Maria Bamford—twirls about the streets of Los Angeles in a floral dress, eats spaghetti with a bicycle, flies, drives a convertible with two (adorable) pugs, and learns from an assistant that she is not, in fact, in a shampoo commercial, but rather her own television show. Most of the sequence is brightly lit, scored by a cheery chorus and a jazzy trumpet; occasionally the screen splits into a collage of smaller images, tracking the action from disjointed angles. The world is sunny and joyous, or at least Maria is, which seems roughly equivalent. When the illusion breaks, the palette dulls, the music cuts out. Now in a t-shirt and jeans, she stands outside a bodega, squinting, confused. “I have a show?” she asks, turning to the camera. “I’m a 45 year-old woman who’s clearly sun-damaged. My skin is getting softer yet my bones are jutting out, so I’m half-soft, half-sharp. And I have a show! What a great late-in-life opportunity.” Then she nearly climbs into a stranger’s van.

That’s Lady Dynamite, which starts streaming on Netflix this week, in a nutshell. Beneath every splash of color is the accretion of darker layers, hardened and hidden; what the sun brightens in one moment, it burns in the next. The series, which follows a fictionalized version of Bamford as she attempts to rebuild her life after a psychiatric breakdown, is largely a recovery story. She tries to get back into show business, tries to find love, tries to right wrongs and rebuild friendships. Like all good protagonists, she flails miserably and often makes things worse—in the pilot, she inadvertently commits to holding a fundraiser for a spurned friend’s gun rights group. Sometimes she learns a lesson, as in the fourth episode, a cautionary tale about molding one’s personality to meet external expectations. Other misadventures, such as her attempt to purge Hollywood of racism, end in characteristic anticlimax. Lady Dynamite is structurally loose—animals talk, people break the fourth wall, cars fly—which seems an authentic enactment of Maria’s (and the real-life Bamford’s) continuing struggle with bipolar II disorder. It is also an effective translation of her peculiar brand of stand-up, which defies easy categorization. She is intensely personal, goofily unpredictable, and totally unhinged; so is Lady Dynamite. “That’s what stand-up is to me,” she explained in a recent call with reporters. “It’s a performance, but you can always do whatever you want. You’re not stuck in—you can break out into a dance at any given moment, with no explanation.”

Though Bamford didn’t write the series—the driving creative force, she said, is former South Park producer Pam Brady—she knew from her first meeting with co-creator Mitch Hurwitz (Arrested Development) that it would tell the story of her breakdown and recovery. Like its peers Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, You’re The Worst and BoJack Horseman, Lady Dynamite is deeply concerned with the insidious effects of depression, which anchor the story even as Maria finds renewed purpose in the world. The narrative is fractured across three time periods—her career at its pre-breakdown peak, her return home to Duluth for treatment, and her (present) return to Hollywood—delineated by title cards and changing color palettes. It’s easy to lose track of where we are, which I suspect is the point. The world of Lady Dynamite is manic and surreal; the past perpetually threatens to drown the present. But whereas those other series render depression chiefly as a force of self-destruction, Lady Dynamite’s emphasis on recovery make for a refreshing approach. This, too, is true to Bamford’s own experience. “I am violently positive,” she said of her attitude toward the darkness in life. “I’m aggressively optimistic… I do genuinely feel that, you know, your greatest weakness can be your greatest strength.”

There is hope in Lady Dynamite, and plenty of it. It calls to mind Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, though I think that show deals with a more self-delusional sort of hope—optimism as a means of burying one’s trauma rather than as the hard-earned product of grappling with it. Maria is about twice Kimmy’s age; her energy and levity are tinged with a sense of weary resignation, an acceptance that even when life is easy, it’s hard. But this is not a depressing series. Co-created and executive produced by Brady and Hurwitz, Lady Dynamite is first and foremost a zany romp behind the scenes of the entertainment industry. Maria’s most frequent scene partner is her dopey manager, Bruce Ben-Bacharach (Fred Melamed), whom she keeps aboard despite his frequently damaging guidance. The plot often springs from his clueless attempts to find work for her—a violent Japanese commercial for a ramen-like pasta called “Pussy Noodle,” a reality show where women are locked up and forced to apologize to men they’ve affronted—but this isn’t quite a workplace comedy, as the two are close friends as well as colleagues. In my favorite of the four episodes made available for screening, Maria accompanies Bruce to a dinner with his ex-wife and her new boyfriend; Bruce is more concerned that his replacement is wearing his clothes than that they’re making out in front of him. The duo is unusual, at least among contemporary TV buddy pairings. I don’t think we’ve seen a middle-aged cross-sex business-friendship quite like this since Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy, though even that had hints of sexual tension (right?). I suppose Leslie Knope and Ron Swanson are comparable, but that’s another ensemble comedy; Maria and Bruce are pretty much the only series regulars here. It’s an intelligent move, allowing the show to elegantly shift between her personal and professional spheres without Game of Thrones-length absences from its principal characters.

Like Master of None, Lady Dynamite is only occasionally explicit with the showbiz commentary. More often this is embedded in its fabric, in the outlandish scripts Maria rejects or the impressive compensation she earns for a few seconds of voiceover work—“thanks to the hardworking men and women of America’s labor unions,” she tells her friends. Master of None is more naturalistic, though, with (mostly) emotionally-grounded characters. Lady Dynamite tends toward sillier characterizations, closer to Arrested Development than the (often gratingly) cartoonish Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. “They interpreted exactly how they think I see the world,” Bamford said of her writers, noting that they didn’t look toward any singular model series. “I think everyone just wanted to have fun and have as many live animals that we could on the show.”

Indeed there are live animals aplenty, as well as a respectable coterie of guest stars. There’s Ana Gasteyer as Maria’s high-strung agent, Karen Grisham; Ed Begley Jr. and Mary Kay Place as her ever-patient parents; Bridget Everett and Lennon Parham as her friends Dagmar and Larissa; the Lucas Bros as the Lucas Bros; and June Diane Raphael as her realtor, also named Karen Grisham. Raphael is currently starring in Netflix’s much more straightforward Grace & Frankie, alongside a principal cast with (generally) more dramatic pedigrees. She also has some of the funniest lines in the four episodes I’ve seen. I asked her whether her onset experiences differed noticeably, and she said, well, not as much as you’d expect. “I think comic actors are some of the best actors because comedy plays well when it’s taken so seriously,” Raphael told me. “Comedy sets can be different—there’s more of an opportunity to play and find things in the moment, not that that doesn’t happen with more serious actors… The spirit was, ‘Absolutely do what you want to do,’ but also the jokes are so funny and so beautifully crafted that it wasn’t really necessary.”

When asked to describe her sense of humor, Bamford told reporters the grim story of a man she once met in a psychiatric facility: “It was a horrible story where, you know, he had planned to kill himself and he put that—did the hose thing in a garage in his car—and the thing that saved his life was his mom got anxious that someone had stolen their hose. Their garden hose. That was the thing that ticked her off—she was like, where is the garden hose?”

“I love that stuff,” she said. “There’s always some kind of humor… I find that comforting.” Then, considering that others might not feel the same, she added: “Please change the channel. Click on something else. Do not suffer.”

Lady Dynamite will be available on Netflix on Friday, May 20, 2016.

Seth Simons is a Brooklyn-based writer, performer, and birdwatcher. Follow him @sasimons.