Maria Bamford, Fred Melamed, Mary Kay Place, Mo Collins, Ana Gasteyer, June Diane Raphael, Lennon Parham, Bridget Everett, Ed Begley, Jr., Jenny Slate, Olafur Darri Olufsson
US: 20 May 2016
Shane (Maria’s blind date): So, Larissa says that you think you’re really funny and you have a lot of mental illness.
Maria: Wow, that’s how she described me?
Susan: Yeah, everybody’s depressed, Maria. It’s called being an adult.
Maria: That’s the saddest thing I’ve ever heard.
Netflix’s Lady Dynamite, a semi-autobiographical take on the life of comedian Maria Bamford, starring Bamford, is a series unafraid to delve into the often painful, unexpectedly funny, and frequently taboo world of mental illness. Co-created by Pam Brady (South Park) and Mitchell Hurwitz (Arrested Development), the series revels in its frequently absurdist tone and self-referential humor. While it does take a few episodes to really hit its stride, the show eventually finds its voice in Bamford’s unexpectedly dark and surrealist comedy.
Lady Dynamite shifts between “Past” and “Present” regularly, chronicling Bamford’s rise to success and her subsequent breakdown (Past), to her recovery (Past—Duluth), to her starting over (Present). Bamford has been very open about her battles with mental illness and her somewhat fictionalized counterpart exhibits the same kind of honesty about her struggles. The matter-of-fact way in which she articulates these struggles is not only groundbreaking and refreshing, but because Bamford is such a skilled comedian, they’re also often very funny.
Although the series does take more time than it should to get going—the fifth episode is a noticeable shift in the right direction—once it finds its footing, it rarely missteps. One of the show’s many highlights are the sequences that take place in Duluth during Bamford’s recovery. Not only are they an opportunity to delve into her time in an outpatient program for her bipolar disorder, but they also focus on Maria’s relationships with her family, including her mother, Marilyn (Mary Kay Place), her father, Joel (Ed Begley, Jr.), and her hometown best friend, Susan (Mo Collins).
Maria’s flashbacks to Duluth are muted in both tone and color, yet they also resonate and balance the rest of the series’ humor. Her dead-end data entry job, her outpatient treatment, and her family make for great comedy, but also adds well-needed pathos that much of the series’ self-referential humor lacks. That’s not to say that the rest of the show is all meta jokes (of which there are many) and high-concept comedy, but the Duluth sequences show an especially vulnerable Maria. The humor in these scenes comes from how incongruous they are in relation to the rest of her life. She’s living at home, interacting with family and old friends while dealing with severe depression, and in many ways has regressed to the role of the child for her parents. It’s alternately sad and hilarious, partly because her parents and Susan are ridiculously funny, but also because Maria can’t help but find the strange and amusing even while dealing with her mental illness.
Maria’s life in present-day Los Angeles as a comic and actress is filled with bad dates—until later in the series when she meets Scott (Olafur Darri Olafsson); many terrible auditions and jobs, courtesy of her well-meaning, but largely incompetent manager, Bruce Ben-Bacharach (Fred Melamed); and refereeing fights between her two best friends (who hate each other), Larissa (Lennon Parham) and Dagmar (Bridget Everett). Although Maria, for the most part, does little to change these dynamics, her natural charm and likability come through to make these struggles more amusing than depressing. It’s a fine line that the series balances well throughout the season.
There are plenty of running jokes in the series, but perhaps two of the best are the many Karen Grishams in Maria’s life, as well as the increasingly rich lives of her pugs. There’s Karen Grisham the agent (Ana Gasteyer), the realtor (June Diane Raphael), and the life coach (Jenny Slate), and though they come into Maria’s life at different times, they all play somewhat similar roles. They’re the kind of larger-than-life characters that immediately contrast Maria’s more people-pleasing nature; they make grand promises, but are ultimately self-serving, frequently at the expense of Maria, but always hilarious.
Maria’s pugs, Blossom and Burt, are revealed to have extremely full and complicated lives throughout the season. Although Maria is completely devoted to her pugs, their separate lives rarely intersect except when she’s in the midst of her untreated mental illness. Blossom’s funeral during Lady Dynamite’s finale reveals Blossom’s relationships with celebrities like Robert Downey, Jr., and her many adventures. The series’ absurdist tone in these sequences offer a break from the darker Duluth scenes, and also exhibit a comedic freedom not often seen in a television show. These scenes are always funny and often surprising, but above all, they’re woven into the series naturally, however strange they may seem.
It’s important to note just how brilliantly cast this series is, particularly in Mary Kay Place’s portrayal of Bamford’s mother. Marilyn’s support coupled with her resignation is balanced beautifully in Place’s performance. Even when it’s obvious that she doesn’t quite understand what’s going on with Maria, she still manages to communicate their connection, awkward though it might sometimes be.
Fred Melamed as Bruce is another highlight. Bruce’s misguided support often leads to horrible professional commitments for Maria, but Melamed plays Bruce with so much affection for her that he’s impossible to dislike, even when he’s making a mess of her career. Also of note is Raphael as realtor Karen Grisham. She’s brash, pushy, and insulting, but Raphael is also very funny, and their interactions are some of the series’ best precisely because the characters are such polar opposites. The show is also filled with guest stars that include Patton Oswalt, Sarah Silverman, Jason Mantzoukas, and Tig Notaro, among many others. It’s a comedy fan’s dream, but also speaks to the respect that Bamford garners in the community.
Maria’s mantra sung at the end of the episodes (“I don’t know what I’m doing, more than half of the time”) says everything you need to know about Lady Dynamite. The show’s humor comes from Bamford’s unique voice in honestly representing her own struggles with mental illness, while also pursuing an entertainment career. In playing with tone, shifting time, breaking the fourth wall, and fearlessly depicting the highs and lows of mental illness, Bamford, along with Brady and Hurwitz, has created a show that never feels like a retread of something else. Instead, Lady Dynamite‘s wonderfully weird, brutally honest, and always very funny.