Why Maria Bamford’s ‘Lady Dynamite’ Is 2016’s Must-See TV Show
Conventional wisdom would have it that crippling mental illness isn’t a good subject for a sitcom. But there’s nothing conventional about Maria Bamford’s brand of comedy. Fans of her stand-up and such through-the-rabbit hole projects like 2012’s Maria Bamford: The Special Special Special — in which the 45-year-old comedian performs a taped set for just her parents in their living room — know that she isn’t afraid to tap into very dark, very personal places in her work. So when Bamford announced she was developing a sitcom for Netflix that would touch on her career struggles in Hollywood and stints in psychiatric hospitals to treat a bipolar disorder, you expected something different. And Lady Dynamite, which toggles between our heroine trying to land acting gigs in Hollywood and her time in a mental hospital in her real-life hometown of Duluth, Minnesota (and premieres in full tomorrow night on the streaming service), could not be a better introduction to her ability to slide between sunny absurdity and depressive reality in a blink.
“I wanted to tell a story of a psychiatric breakdown, but also not bring it down so much,” Bamford explained of the premise, which she co-conceived Mitchell Hurwitz (Arrested Development) and Pam Brady (South Park). “I wanted to show how depressing those wards are in a very funny way … just the underfundedness of it. I’ve been in some facilities where the furniture is broken; there’s maybe a puzzle, but half the pieces are gone. They chop down the trees in case somebody tries to hang themselves. So the only place you have to walk around is an industrial cigarette bucket next to a schizophrenic man. And you’re both agitated so you’re both walking around it very quickly.
“I don’t know how healthy that is,” she admits. “But in retrospect, it’s so funny!”
The show also isn’t afraid to pick apart the structure of a sitcom about a comedian’s life while also simultanesously being exactly that type of show. Her best friends (Bridgett Everett and Lennon Parham) are more likely to feed into her self-hate rather than the typical TV sidekick job of propping her up. Fellow Comedians of Comedy veterans Patton Oswalt and Brian Posehn show up as bike cops, only to drop character and advise Bamford not to do her stand-up act. [“Louis [C.K.] is going to throw a fit,” Oswalt says when someone wheels out a fake-brick-wall set.) Showbiz types from the weary, sad-sack manager to the shark-like alpha-agent — played here, respectively, by A Serious Man‘s Fred Melamed and SNL veteran Ana Gasteyer — are both recognizable clichés and send-up of their own caricatures. Fourth walls are regularly broken; at one point, our heroine frets over which color filter would be appropriately dour-looking for a scene in the psych ward. After perusing her choices, she immediately switches all of her flashbacks to blue.
Though fans of Bamford will recognize that the show is very much in her voice — unflinchingly strange, brutally honest and optimistic in spite of it all — she wasn’t directly involved in the writing process. “I’d maybe come in two to four hours a week, eat an ice cream sandwich and wander around the table laughing and spouting off, putting in ideas, answering questions,” she recalls. “The writers’ room is like a little family, you know? It’s a safe space. So I didn’t want to come in there and be like, ‘Guess what. Over the weekend I had some ideas.’ It was a group collaboration, so I hope some of the voices of other people get heard.”
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