Lady Dynamite Is Your First Must-Binge Show of the Summer
Five, ten, maybe twenty years from now, when some curious newb cues up Netflix’s Lady Dynamite—and, based on the first four episodes alone, people will be watching this smart, happily trippy series for a long while—they’ll be seeing a lot of sitcom anomalies: It treats mental illness with delicacy, precision, and an utter lack of lesson-ladling seriousness; it jams together a whole mess of 21st-century comedy styles without having them collapse upon impact; and it’s the first binge-era series in which a character turns the phrase “cradle the balls and work the shaft” into a catchy, easy-to-repeat sing-along (I’m just guessing on the last point, as I still haven’t seen Bosch).
Created by South Park alum Pam Brady and Arrested Development majordomo Mitch Hurwitz, Lady Dynamite stars stand-up and actress Maria Bamford as … stand-up and actress Maria Bamford, who, in her small-screen incarnation, has just returned to Hollywood after a stint in a mental-health facility in Duluth (in real life, Bamford has discussed her own struggles with mental illness, as well as her stay in a psychiatric ward). As Lady Dynamite begins, Maria’s on the mend but still fragile, and daydreaming of a fantasy-land hair-care commercial in which she’s the fearless, empowered center of attention. “Ain’t no man gonna tell me I ain’t a woman,” she says to the camera, after giving it a glib, blinding wink.
Once Maria snaps out of her reverie, though, she’s back to her new reality, one in which she’s on meds, out of work, and in the office of her kind but feckless manager (played with delightful fussiness by A Serious Man‘s Fred Melamed), to whom she breaks the news that, after her breakdown, she needs to take it easy, career-wise. “I’m gonna be less ambitious,” she tells him, “or maybe not ambitious.” She needs to slow down, she says, and make amends for past mistakes. Maybe she can even learn a few things.
Maria Bamford and Fred Melamed as Bruce.
The problem is that showbiz doesn’t reward the half-ambitious—nor does it offer much in the way of easy, fuzzy-embrace redemption. So while Lady Dynamite sends Maria off on a search for connection and understanding—a search that finds her setting up a community bench for her neighbors on her front lawn, dating a bisexual meth-addict, and joining a support group for white people who worry they may be racist—she’s often undermined by both her own screw-ups, and by an industry that constantly wants to sell her out and shut her up. Throughout Lady Dynamite, we jump back and forth between Maria’s pre- and post-treatment showbiz career, and the Hollywood it depicts is a beautiful but insufferably shrill hellhole—a city pockmarked by cynical opportunists and calculating frenemies, all slaves to an industry that churns out hours’ worth of racist, misogynist network sitcoms (or big-chain commercials) that make everyone rich while shoplifting their souls.
But it would be impossible for Maria—or Lady Dynamite—to survive in any other city. In Duluth, we watch as Maria tries to fit in among her parents (Mary Kay Place and Ed Begley Jr.), her fellow patients, her cubicle-manacled coworkers, and her cruelly condescending childhood best friend (MadTV‘s Mo Collins); such flashbacks find her rudderless, unable to perform onstage without wilting. Back in Hollywood, she may still be adrift, but at least she’s no less crazy than her peers, which includes Saturday Night Live‘s Ana Gasteyer as a cravenly phony agent (she’s the one who belts out that impromptu balls/shaft ditty, for reasons too long and happily silly to divulge here) as well as Playing House star (and new-comedy economy mainstay) Lennon Parham as Maria’s lazy, underminey assistant. In Lady Dynamite‘s version of Hollywood, everyone’s a little blind to their own batshitness, and happily so.
Lennon Parham and Maria Bamford.
That instability spills over to the show itself, which Brady and Hurwitz approach with a sort of tumble-dryer loosey-gooseyness, mixing together as many postmodern comedic styles as possible: There’s the hyperlinked jokes and daffy wordplay of Arrested Development; the brusque bursts of low-budget mayhem that can be found on Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!; the medium-bending savvy and slipperiness of early Spike Jonze; and the blurring between off- and on-screen realities that anchor Louie and Master of None. There are also a few perfectly calibrated (and, again, very L.A.-centric) cameos, including 12 Years a Slave writer John Ridley; a great, game-for-anything Mira Sorvino; and Sugar Ray frontman Mark McGrath, playing a gun-loving, dickish version of himself, all the while looking discomfitingly like he just walked out of 1998 (apparently, McGrath don’t McCrackth).
If that all sounds like a mess, it’s not—in large part because of Bamford, who holds it all together, even when Maria can’t. The actress’ face is wonderfully responsive: Eyebrows that jump in awkward shock or too-obvious delight; a smile that turns from beatific to beaten-down in just seconds. But anyone who’s seen her stand-up specials or occasional TV turns (including her loopy Target ads) already knows this. The real surprise in Dynamite is how convincingly she plays Maria at her weakest moments, when her illness has literally and figuratively dragged her to the ground—moments Bamford plays without the mawkishness or manic-panic over-emoting that might have negated the banal truths of mental illness that Dynamite wants to explore. It’s hard to think of a current comedy performer more ambitious, or maybe as not un-ambitious, as Bamford is here—or a show more fitting of its explosive title.
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