Maria: Am I supposed to laugh at that?
Gabriel: Depends if you’re racist.
Maria: Do you think I’m racist? Is asking not racist?
Gabriel: There’s no right answer. Things aren’t black or white. Or are they?
Maria: Oh. Oh nooo.
Pam Brady and Mitch Hurwitz’s Lady Dynamite initially feels like one of those rare, great shows that desperately hopes that no one learns anything from it, or from its protagonist Maria Bamford (played by the comedian of the same name). If, for example, you’ve spent the last 10 weeks, writing about a show like WGN’s Underground, this might be just the kind of light-hearted fare you need. At least, it seems that way in the first couple of installments. And then I encountered “White Trash,” an episode about how hard it is to be white, and constantly concerned with race and racism in America. It is, apparently, really really hard. And I learned something from the episode, whether they wanted me to or not. White people who care about racial issues in this country deserve a safe space to talk about those issues—without fear of being offensive, or being attacked—and they need the support of black people like me, to let them know that their trying is appreciated—and good enough.
In “White Trash” Maria sincerely tries to embrace diversity by signing on for a role in a new series, “White Trash.” Like most well-meaning white people, legitimately concerned with race, she wants to step into this space—where she’ll be working alongside the [blac] Lucas Bros.—cognizant of her privilege. So she does what good-hearted, well-meaning white folks do and she finds a space to talk openly about race… surrounded by other well-meaning white folks.
What follows is a scene that really highlights the unique quandary many whites find themselves in, time and time again. Maria is coached by the group leader of L.A. PURE (a group for white people who hate being racist)—a woman who admits she once suffered from Rachel Dolezalitis, and pretended to be a black woman, to the point where she believed she was a black woman—to avoid discussing actual issues of race with any and all black people. After all, she notes, blacks have suffered enough at the hands of whites, and they shouldn’t be burdened with helping well-meaning whites understand their perspective. The coach also gives Maria a helpful text, Minding My Own Business: The Premiere Guide to Innocuous Race Relations.
Maria takes what she’s learned and applies it to her work environment. And it’s the right thing to do. After all, the Lucas Bros. are playing garbage men on the new show—in this, the age of Obama! She and her white co-star Mira Sorvino fight back and demand that they play the garbage women instead. It’s a perfect win for both race relations and feminism.
But that’s not where the lesson ends. When the Lucas Bros. explain how her well-intentioned interference with the shows cost them their lead roles—and the space for them to tell their own story about how they became stand-up comics—Maria goes on to acknowledge her blunder, and seeks advice from Academy Award-winning writer of 12 Years a Slave writer and American Crime creator, John Ridley. In this moment, where Lady Dynamite crashes the fourth wall, as it is wont to do, Maria Bamford (the star of Lady Dynamite, not the actor in “White Trash”) tells Ridley that she just wanted to use her platform to say something important about race. And isn’t that what all well-meaning white people want?
And it’s here that I must take off my satirical hat, because the brilliance of this bizarre, twisted series deserves some seriousness, if only for a moment. Ridley’s response to Maria is perfect: “I don’t think what you’re doing is malicious. It’s just recklessly ignorant.”
In poking fun at well-meaning white people everywhere, Lady Dynamite offers up a powerful look at the ways in which racism truly functions in America. Donald Drumpf, confederate flags, men in hooded white sheets and black men swinging from trees—too many people believe that these are the truest (and perhaps only) signifiers of racism. Those people who are just prejudiced, or don’t know and any better, aren’t doing any real harm. And everyone else who is trying to understand race, well they are a part of the solution.
But “White Trash” dares to suggest otherwise—those recklessly ignorant people are just as much a part of the problem; perhaps more so than the malicious Donald Drumpfs of the world, because they believe that they are solving racism with their ridiculous conversations, and essays and attempts at “diversity.” John Ridley’s statement concisely makes the same argument many of us have been trying to make (an argument Martin Luther King, Jr. also made when he spoke of the white moderate as the greatest threat to freedom): when it comes to race, the recklessly ignorant do as much damage, if not more, than the malicious.
There are so many great moments in “White Trash,” so many lines of dialogue I want to transcribe, but the highlight comes at the very end. Just when the great John Ridley is about to tell us how to fix America, just when he’s about to break down the real problem with race and Hollywood in a conversation with another black character, Gabriel, Maria barges through their intimate moment and cuts him off completely. He loses his train of thought, never to unpack and unveil the source and solution to our problems again. Of course Maria, because she’s well-meaning, blames herself. And her hilarious reaction/apology is the perfect example of how self-blame is an act disturbingly close to self-congratulation. Another way of looking at it, is to say that white guilt is disturbingly close to white supremacy.
Lady Dynamite is posing as a silly show about a silly white woman and her problems, but damn if there aren’t some layers to peel back here. What’s exciting about the series is how, in both veiling and unveiling such layers—all while maintaining an absurdity the likes of which we’ve only caught glimpses of on shows like Arrested Development and Strangers with Candy—it sets a new standard for comedy. There is now (and has always been) ample space for comics to tell their stories, while being funny and conscious, and true to their work. As one of the Lucas Bros. states in the episode, black comics, much like their white counterparts, “don’t wanna represent anything… we just wanna be funny.”
Maria Bamford needn’t worry that I’m crowning her some sort of spokesperson for blacks who want white people to get it, or for white people who do get it. I’m midway through the series, and it’s clear that this show isn’t interested in “representing” anything, in that way (see episode six, the hilarious “Loaf Coach,” for more celebrations of nothing). But of course, as a result of all its strangeness and unwillingness to be pinned down, it feels like a powerful statement of something. That something is as changing as the myriad issues Maria encounters, trying to find her way and trying not suck at life, post-bipolar breakdown. That unnameable something is the reason the show works and begs us to watch more, whether we take away something fascinating—like an honest exploration of white guilt—or nothing deep at all, save a few good laughs.
Shannon M. Houston is a Staff Writer and the TV Editor for Paste. This New York-based writer probably has more babies than you, but that’s okay; you can still be friends. She welcomes almost all follows on Twitter.