Alt-comedian Maria Bamford offered a singular vision of female resilience with the first season of her semi-autobiographical sitcom Lady Dynamite on Netflix. From Mary Richards to Carrie Bradshaw, Liz Lemon to Abbi and Ilana, single (white) women in the city have been wanting it all: professional success, fulfilling romance, soul-sustaining friendships. Confidence and drive course through those characters’ veins; it’s no wonder they’ve become totems of female independence. But by the time Lady Dynamite debuted last spring, we’d needed something like it for awhile: a reminder that a woman need not be impossibly aspirational for us to empathize with her.
The fictional Maria that Bamford played was, in fact, assertively fragile. Lady Dynamite’s excellent first season focused on the comedian protagonist’s recovery from a bout of severe depression, for which she was hospitalized three times in one year. (It’s actually a pretty funny season!) The fear of relapse led Maria to turn down enviable opportunities and flee from a promising relationship with a kind, Icelandic bear-man (Olafur Darri Olafsson). Similarly, Maria’s friendships with other women (Bridget Everett, Lennon Parham and Mo Collins) and her downward-spiraling manager (Fred Melamed) were seldom nourishing. But the show’s greatest rebuke to the haunting specter of ‘roided-up female empowerment came in the form of Maria’s new agent Karen Grisham (a sensational Ana Gasteyer), a cartoon of at-all-costs-ism who ultimately pushes Maria into a suicidal crater. (Again, it’s a very entertaining program!)
After watching the new season’s first three episodes, it feels inevitable that the stakes for this year are lower than, well, life or death. Dealing with matters of mental health in a more roundabout way, those opening installments augur a lighter, mellower, less uncomfortably raw tone. Others might disagree, but I found it a bit of a relief not to be handed someone’s still-throbbing heart. In therapy terms, now that we’ve dealt with the more immediate crisis, it’s time to dive into the origins of the issues at hand.
Critics have generally embraced auteur-driven comedies based on real-life experiences — Louie, Girls and Transparent — in part for the texture of realistic details that such series evoke. Lady Dynamite largely exists to walk up to the edge of relatability, over and over again; the show could accurately be called, “Here’s What It Feels Like to Be (This Version of) Maria Bamford.” That specificity is both Lady Dynamite’s chief asset and biggest drawback. I remain interested in Season 2’s idiosyncratic storylines, but I found my attention drifting whenever the series time-traveled to Maria’s mildly traumatizing teenage years. There’s only so much of someone else’s psychoanalytical sessions that I’m able to find interesting.
Olafsson joins the cast as Scott, the affable giant who’s just moved in with Maria at the start of Season 2. Maria wonders if they’ve moved in too fast, and if she can even live with someone else, and how it is that her boyfriend can object to her feeding a feral raccoon a pan full of fajitas while dressing the animal in a mariachi hat. (Yes, the raccoon talks; the show is as devoted as ever to its talking animals, world-weary creatures who mostly pity Maria in the way a teacher might pity an eager but slow student for failing a test: “Well, you tried your best.”) So far, the season is strongest when exploring how Maria’s bipolar disorder chips away at her new bond in small ways: her racing anxieties, her reticence to share her feelings, Scott’s accusation that her mania is returning when she says something he’d rather not accept.
That commitment to emotional groundedness gets weighed down in the regular flashbacks to Maria’s teen years in Duluth, Minnesota, where the sitcom searches for the source of her neuroses about relationships. The first season offered a barbed portrait of Midwestern repression, and season two will perhaps deepen that sketch. But the already repetitive scenes of Maria being bullied by her high-school frenemy (Melanie Hutsell) are unpromising. (Mary Kay Place and Ed Begley, Jr. return as Maria’s parents, though Kurt Braunohler plays the younger Mr. Bamford in the flashbacks.)
However conscientiously Maria navigates the obstacles in her new relationship, troubles await her a year from now, when she stars in a self-parodic show-within-the-show called Maria Bamford Is Nuts that airs on the futuristic “MuskVision,” named after Elon Musk. Like its predecessor, the new season juggles three timelines and features razor-sharp send-ups of the industry. In the future, pitches are irrelevant — a machine simply scans Maria’s face to determine which demographics will watch her. Good news: MuskVision’s algorithms have a use for the comedian after all.
I’m not sure where Maria’s invitation to join Jill Soloway’s Hollywood Ladies Club — which looks part Jem and the Holograms, part that orgy scene in Eyes Wide Shut — will lead, but I can’t wait to see more of Bamford’s cockeyed feminist commentary. In the year of Wonder Woman, I treasure each and every display of female strength. But I’m just as happy to watch a show in which the female protagonist admits with a shrug that her nerves wreak havoc on her digestive tract. There’s power in honesty — and Lady Dynamite has plenty of both.
Cast: Maria Bamford, Fred Melamed, Mary Kay Place, Ed Begley Jr., Olafur Darri Olafsson
Creators: Pam Grady and Mitch Hurwitz
Premieres: Friday, Nov. 10 (Netflix)