One of the benefits of a generation that brings all of their dirty laundry and internal life out in public is that it opens up a lot of non-judgmental conversations about mental health. Shows like You’re the Worst and BoJack Horseman have dealt with depression in realistic and honest manners. Joining them is Maria Bamford’s new show for Netflix, Lady Dynamite. Bamford has long been candid with her battles with OCD, Unwanted Thoughts Disorder, and Bipolar II in her stand-up, and is taking that conversation to a larger scale with Lady Dynamite.
Like shows from other comedians, Lady Dynamite flirts between fact and fiction, pulling experiences from her own life and giving them a surreal twist. After some time in a mental hospital, Maria plays a version of herself, a “45-year-old woman who is clearly sun-damaged,” looking to get back into the business of show with her bumbling manager, Bruce Ben-Bacharach (Fred Melamed) and Karen Grisham (Ana Gasteyer), a hilariously aggressive agent. As Maria tries to feel out where she’s headed with both her life and career, she can’t help but be overwhelmed by the world around her. Maria just wants to foster a little community, be kind to others and herself, and maybe get paid.
Her first step is to build a bench in front of her house, hoping that her neighbors will be drawn to it. L.A. being L.A., they aren’t, but Maria is still determined to be a people pleaser, leading to some incredibly self-aware antics. In order to make this right after a misunderstanding with Mark McGrath (yes, that Mark McGrath), she ends up performing for his gun rights group. In a later episode, she wants to ease her way back into the dating game, and in order to please her opportunistic best friend Larissa (Lennon Parham), she goes way out of her comfort zone by going out with a bisexual former meth addict. Maria just wants to make everyone around her happy, even if it’s to her own detriment. While the show certainly has an edge, Bamford’s sweetness without sugary guile is a refreshing change of pace. Though Lady Dynamite is ultimately about her recovery, there is still an undercurrent of sadness that tinges every frame, adding depth to the manic energy.
It all proves to be a little too much for Maria, and the unique way Bamford portrays what it’s like inside her head is truly a marvel. The premiere is ridiculously meta, giving brief glimpses behind the scenes, with Patton Oswalt serving as her sort of sensei, helping her keep the show on track and avoiding falling into the same old tropes that comedians before her have mined with their own shows. However, things get even more compelling as we see deeper glimpses into Bamford’s psyche, her interactions with her parents (Ed Begley Jr. and Mary Kay Place), and some next-level flashbacks. If you can keep up with her mile-a-minute brain, you’re in for a real treat.
On top of that, the show is just lousy with talent. The creative team is anchored by Pam Brady of South Park and Mitch Hurwitz of Arrested Development. And on top of that, this show is a comedy nerd’s dream, with appearances from the previously mentioned Oswalt, Mo Collins, Bridget Everett, John Mulaney, and more. Melamed and Gasteyer are both excellent as members of Bamford’s professional team, both taking extremely different directions when dealing with the client. However, the heart of the show is unsurprisingly Bamford. She lays it all bare, and her sweetness in the face of an often garbage-filled world will no doubt break the hearts of viewers.
Lady Dynamite won’t be for everyone. Its surreal structure makes it a more complicated watch than many other comedies out there, but that’s exactly why we need it. If you look at the lineups for fall shows on major networks, one can’t help but think that our “Golden Age of Television” is going to go out with a whimper. CBS made two shows that look almost identical, cashing in on lazy jokes and out-of-date tropes. However, a series like Lady Dynamite proves that there is room for comedy that is genuinely fresh and surprising, even if it also makes you a little uncomfortable.