Editor’s Note: This early review of Lady Dynamite is spoiler-free.
There’s a moment near the end of Lady Dynamite’s first episode in which a famous current comedian breaks character as a Second Amendment Tea Party activist to express his concern for lead character and actress, Maria Bamford.
“Oh Christ, you weren’t kidding, she’s gonna do stand up on her show,” he says to another famous comedian who has also completely broken character and had previously advised Maria to not do stand up on her show. The other comedian replies “Look at that brick wall, Louie’s gonna shit.”
They’re not just talking about the “character” of Maria Bramford, they’re talking about the “real” Maria Bramford and her decision as to whether incorporate stand up into Lady Dynamite, the very show we’re watching.
Meta and self-referential humor is nothing new to the television landscape at this point. If anything, the tides have turned so far that at least a little bit of meta-ness is the norm rather than the exception. Lady Dynamite sets itself apart in two key ways, however.
The first is how relentless and damn near reckless it is with its meta humor. To watch Lady Dynamite is to almost passively participate in its creation. Maria Bamford, as both the lead character and creator, constantly muses onscreen as to what is and isn’t working. She makes production decisions on the fly, down to picking out the exact right shade of blue tint to indicate that we’re in a flashback scene.
Characters constantly break the fourth wall. Buildings are emblazoned with helpful writing like “Maria’s House” and “Bruce Ben-Bacharach’s Office” just so we know where we are at all times. Maria briefly becomes a child upon exiting a van dropping her home from an outpatient mental health clinic before returning to adulthood with no explanation. The commitment to the meta as both a comedic device and even sometimes dramatic device is just staggering.
The other way in which Lady Dynamite’s meta nature goes the extra mile is that it is so frequently compassion-based. Reference the two comedians advising Maria to not include stand up on her show. They’re saying that not just because it’s a funny joke. They’re saying it because they actually care. Watching Lady Dynamite then doesn’t just become an exercise in passively participating in its creation but also actively rooting for its success.
Lady Dynamite could have well have been called Everybody Loves Maria because in truth, everyone does love Maria Bamford whether they know it or not yet. Comedians love Maria Bamford because she’s hilarious. Louis C.K. featured her on his show and Marc Maron was as effusive as Marc Maron is capable of being on her obligatory WTF appearance. I’ve loved Maria Bamford since I watched the rerun of her Comedy Central Presents episode dozens of times in my basement alone instead of leaving the house to play with the other children. Maria Bamford is enthusiastic, unusual, charismatic and just downright hilarious.
Still, Bamford never got the big break that a lot of her contemporaries enjoyed party due to the usual suspects (pre-streaming era lack of media, a misunderstanding of “alt comedy,” garden variety sexism, etc.) but also due to Bamford’s own struggles with her mental health. Bamford revealed a few years ago that she had been diagnosed as Bipolar II. Or as one meth-addicted bisexual character in episode two indelicately puts it “So Larissa tells me you think you’re really funny and have a lot of mental illness.”
Now Bamford is apparently ready for her break and Netflix has stepped up to the plate and done what Netflix does best: finding talented comedians and letting them do whatever the hell they want. Lady Dynamite is just the latest in this Netflix model of star-focused comedies that started with Aziz Ansari’s well-received and offbeat Master of None and it might be its best offering yet.
The first episode is the longest, strangest, and most inaccessible. It’s almost as though Maria (show Maria and real Maria) put her most difficult foot forward in anticipation of being rejected. The first episode features frequent time jumps back to Bamford’s time in treatment, the aforementioned fourth-wall breaking humor and even Maria inexplicably turning into a lamb for a few frames. It’s the exact opposite of a traditional pilot which usually tries to be as accessible and broad as possible. If Bamford was trying to defensively alienate, she fails as its probably the best episode of the first four screened for critics. Episodes two through four are shorter and more traditionally structured but don’t abandon the show’s frequent meta flourishes.
The plot, inasmuch as there is a plot essentially follows Maria Bamford’s current life. She’s fresh out of treatment, taking all the right pills and trying to restart her career as a comedian and actress as carefully as she possibly can without further jeopardizing her mental health. Fred Melamed co-stars as her flagrantly incompetent but completely lovable and loyal manager, Bruce. Ana Gasteyer, Ed Begley Jr., Mo Collins and Mary Kay Place all pop up in flashback sequences as Maria’s other manager and family while Lennon Parham and Bridget Everett reside in the “present” as Bamford’s friends Alissa and Dagmar.
Bamford as herself is phenomenal. She’s believably wide-eyed and vulnerable while still maintaining her tremendous sense of humor. The Maria “character” is able to go to much funnier places than an actor traditionally playing themselves would thanks to the dynamic nature of the show.
The unseen MVPs here are undoubtedly series co-creators and showrunners Mitchell Hurtwitz and Pam Brady. Hurwitz, in particular, has his fingerprints all over this. Lady Dynamite has so much of Arrested Development’s DNA in it that it might as well be a Bluth-less season five. Bamford even appeared as one of the better aspects of the much-maligned season four. Even the tiny comedic details are reminiscent of Arrested Development like the way that the soundtrack is both corny and always cuts two seconds before it should creating a disquieting but undeniably hilarious effect.
In a way, Lady Dynamite is a return to form for Hurwitz as much as it is for Bamford. I would never say that the creator of one of the best comedies of all time would need a comeback but glancing at Hurwitz’ IMDb reveals that Lady Dynamite is his first win in awhile.
And good for him! Good for Maria! Good for everybody, really! Lady Dynamite brings to the table two crucial “H’s” It’s honest and it’s happy. Since Lady Dynamite lets us participate in its own creation part of the enjoyment of the show comes from the sheer happiness you share with everyone onscreen as they pull this weird thing off. The fact that it’s also funny doesn’t hurt either.
Season 1 of Lady Dynamite debuts May 20.