'Lady Dynamite': TV Review

Courtesy of Netflix
Mental illness can be compassionate and funny.
5/20/2016

Alt-comedy favorite Maria Bamford turns a genre upside down in her new Netflix series.

When it comes to the already meta, already over-saturated genre of comedians playing veiled versions of themselves, winking at the audience as they go about their personal and professional business, encountering their real celebrity friends, the mouth of the snake has finally reached its tail.

If there's any justice, Maria Bamford's new Netflix comedy Lady Dynamite will serve as a capper for a genre that's still more than welcome to live on with Curb Your Enthusiasm and Louie, as we forget about The Paul Reiser Show, Dice, Real Rob, The Comedians, Donny! and seemingly dozens more.

It was inevitable that a genre fueled by self-aware acknowledgement of reality TV, documentaries, and inside baseball Hollywood conventions would eventually get around to being aware of itself and at least this Judgment Day comes courtesy of the very talented Bamford, Mitch Hurwitz (Arrested Development) and Pam Brady (The Loop), because it would have been very easy for Lady Dynamite to be aggressively obnoxious, as opposed to just periodically a bit too far up its own butt.

Long an adored member of the alternative comedy circuit, Bamford has been a voice-acting stalwart and a late-night favorite, but it's likely that the widest audience may recognize her from her turn as DeBrie Bardeaux in Netflix's fourth season of Arrested Development.

Bamford's dysfunctional family and her battles with depression, bipolar disorder and hypomania are all part of her stand-out persona and they're at the center of Lady Dynamite, which takes pleasure in making itself as complicated as possible. The show takes place in a trio of timelines, including Maria in the present day (with Fred Melamed as her manager Bruce Ben-Bacharach and Lennon Parham and Bridget Everett as her friends), Maria a decade or so in the past when she was just starting to break through in Hollywood while still struggling with financial difficulties and slowly emerging mental issues (with Ana Gasteyer as super-agent Karen Grisham) and her time in Duluth, when she was living at home (Mary Kay Place and Ed Begley Jr. are nicely muted her parents) and receiving outpatient psychiatric treatment.

The storyline in the present isn't a mockumentary exactly, but it's a show that Bamford is starring in and producing and she occasionally can call "Cut" to discuss the difficulties of delineating between the other timelines, or to solicit advice from Patton Oswalt, playing a rent-a-cop but willing to step out of character, on why including stand-up segments as a structuring device is a bad idea. This isn't a sitcom about Bamford's literal life, but there's a sense that everything is being conveyed through her troubled, bemused, eternally optimistic prism and part of the fun is in trying to decipher the real-life antecedents for the various fictionalized commercials, game shows, animated projects and failed pilots Fictional Bamford finds herself involved in either to pay bills or as a vehicle to illuminate intended life lessons, which Bamford admits aren't always being conveyed convincingly, but which she commits to thoroughly.

Committing thoroughly is what Lady Dynamite does best, because there are moments here that stray as close to a Charlie Kaufman-style fragmented depiction of a troubled psyche as anything I've seen on TV. I think a Louie or a Curb tries to filter Louis C.K. or Larry David's sensibility, but Lady Dynamite feels like it's delivering Bamford's wounded psyche in whole chunks, sometimes eager to please, sometimes awkwardly confrontational and generally compassionate.

Directed by Hurwitz and dedicated to establishing the ground rules for the series, the Lady Dynamite pilot is probably the best of the four episodes sent to critics, featuring a fake haircare commercial, a hallucinated sheep, the strangest Breaking Bad homage imaginable and the sad-but-funny message, "All the fame and fortune of Hollywood can't save you if your brain done broke!" In addition to the familiarity of a burgeoning genre, Lady Dynamite also moves us several steps closer to a theory of a Unified Netflix Universe, featuring cameos from two comics who have done recent Netflix standup specials, an Emmy-winning sitcom star who did a cameo on The Ranch, as well as shades of the Hurwitz-produced recovery series Flaked.

As so often happens when you have a gonzo premiere, subsequent episodes can't quite hold the momentum. But even in becoming more conventional, the next three episodes include Maria ill-fated attempt to solve racism in Hollywood, a scathing look at the LA real estate market including the neologism "bukkandos" and a splendid meditation on when guest stars are and aren't playing themselves on shows like this, using Mira Sorvino as its case study. And if Maria's revelations on the dangers of people pleasing, the problems with dating a bisexual meth-head and learning to find your own voice sound forced, they're forced in the faux afterschool special vibe of Amy Sedaris' cult classic Strangers With Candy. That Comedy Central favorite is such a compatible progenitor for Lady Dynamite that I expect it will get referenced in a later episode, perhaps the same one in which Maria finds herself appearing on a show that looks a lot like Arrested Development on a streaming service that sounds a lot like Netflix. Four episodes of Lady Dynamite have been enough to convince me that this is a show that's very conscious of the creative world it's occupying and the things you're likely to compare it to.

Like Sedaris, Bamford's greatest gift as a performer is in her ability to take a character to the edge of caricature, but then find a beat or two of real pain or emotion that make you reconsider whether what came before was actually exaggerated at all. It's a polarizing performance style likely to turn away a number of viewers and I don't think I'm going to be able to woo those dissenters back by offering that Melamed and Gasteyer and Parham are very funny. The guest cast is a mixture of very predictable, but also very tone-appropriate, comedians who hail from Bamford's alternative comedy world and recognizable faces you probably think of as "square" who get good sport points for playing around with their image, starting with Mark McGrath in the pilot.

It feels like I've been reviewing a new entry in the comedian-as-himself genre every week for a year and that's even while allowing a colleague to celebrate George Lopez's TV Land series in my stead. Lady Dynamite is, at once, a parody of everything that has come before, a correction of some of the genre's failings, an answer to some of the genre's big questions and a unique bipolar autobiography. Will it prove equally satisfying to viewers who aren't TV critics, TV obsessives or alt comedy devotees? In our fragmented TV world, does it need to?

Network: Netflix

Cast: Maria Bamford, Fred Melamed, Ana Gasteyer, Mary Kay Place, Ed Begley Jr.

Executive Producers: Maria Bamford, Mitch Hurwitz, Pam Brady

Premieres Friday, May 20 on Netflix

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