Since starting out as a streaming service for TV shows and movies (and before that, in ancient times, as a DVD-by-mail rental service), Netflix has transformed into a hotbed of original content. With hits like House of Cards, Daredevil, and Orange is the New Black, Netflix has staked out a place in this “Golden Age of Television” as a clear rival to broadcast and cable television. And along with hit dramas and documentaries, Netflix has also introduced a variety of new comedy series, giving a voice to creators that more conventional television generally ignores.
The latest of these new comedies is Lady Dynamite starring stand-up comedian, Maria Bamford. The series is a mockumentary based around Bamford’s own life; specifically her career struggles in Hollywood both before and after suffering a mental breakdown, as well as her time spent back home with her parents while she receives treatment at a psychiatric hospital. Created with Mitch Hurwitz (Arrested Developement) and Pam Brady (South Park), Lady Dynamite incorporates Bamford’s self-deprecating and often surreal comedy into a single-camera, sitcom setting – and then proceeds to fundamentally destroy that setting by repeatedly breaking the fourth wall and calling our attention to the very falsehood of television.
The Maria of Lady Dynamite is, presumably, a fictionalized version of the comedian, but by using her own experiences with mental illness and the vicious cycle of showbiz as the framework for the series, Lady Dynamite is telling a very personal story. For anyone familiar with Bamford’s brand of comedy that won’t come as a surprise, seeing as her stand-up often pulls from her struggles with depression and anxiety. And while using personal experience as the impetus for a comedy series is far from original, Lady Dynamite is so unlike similar series (Louie, Master of None) thanks to Bamford’s very unique and quirky sense of humor. “I wanted to tell a story of a psychiatric breakdown, but also not bring it down so much,” Bamford said in interview with Rolling Stone, and for a show whose central character is simultaneously reaching her breaking point, recovering from her breakdown, and trying to sort her life out post-breakdown, Lady Dynamite is very, very funny.
It’s also a very layered show, exploring a lot of different angles in the span of an episode. There are the three time periods of Maria’s life running concurrently, but there’s also a continuous back and forth between the show as presented and the show as artifice – where actors break character and speak directly to Maria, the comedian not the character. In the premiere we see this with Patton Oswalt playing a bike cop who’s at first reprimanding Maria for her illegally installed park bench, only to begin lecturing Maria on why she shouldn’t perform stand-up on her series, listing all those from Jerry Seinfeld to Louie C.K. who’ve already used the device. That kind of self-awareness happens again and again throughout the episode, whether she’s debating which color lens to give her flashbacks or calling out Mark McGrath on Sugar Ray’s songs being too expensive to license.
In addition, the series has yet another layer which is entirely surreal and off-beat and that we can only assume exists within Maria’s mind. One in where she appears as an honest-to-goodness lamb or sees her manager die in a fiery sidecar crash only to later appear unscathed in the present timeline. It’s these moments that make Lady Dynamite truly unique among the many comedies which center on the life of a stand-up comic, offering multiple outlets for Bamford to critique and poke fun at herself, the comedy industry, and television sitcoms.
Joining Bamford are Lennon Parham and Bridget Everett as Larissa and Dagmar, Maria’s best friends whose favorite activities include verbally abusing Maria and feeding her self hate. Their treatment of her is often hilarious, but it couldn’t be further away from the dynamic a sitcom star would typically share with her best gal pals. Maria’s manager, Bruce (Fred Melamed) is closer to what we’d expect, wanting nothing more than to see Maria (and by relation himself) be successful. He also isn’t too concerned with what it is Maria wishes for her career, but his cluelessness is more endearing than off-putting thanks to how earnestly Melamed plays it. Ana Gasteyer also appears as Karen Grisham, a recurring role as an agent Maria works with her during her pre-breakdown stint in Hollywood. She’s an outrageously over the top character in a show already full of them and Gasteyer brings a frenetic intensity to the part that would make Entourage‘s Ari Gold take a step back.
Rounding out the primary cast are Mary Kay Place and Ed Begley Jr. as Maria’s parents. They themselves are struggling to be supportive of their daughter, with Place giving Maria’s mother a sense of concern that rings false even if it isn’t and Begley playing her father as if he’d rather ignore Maria was there all together. Still, though not an ideal family life, it coupled with Maria’s experiences in treatment at the hospital presents a painfully funny look at mental health.
Lady Dynamite frequently pivots between hilarious introspection to absurdity and back again for some self-referential bit lampooning sitcom tropes – all within a 30 to 35 minute episode. It’s surprisingly complicated in its construction, but the laughs come easily, being both painfully honest in its depiction of mental illness and painfully funny with how a bright-eyed and cheery Maria must navigate her recovery.
Lady Dynamite season 1 is now available to stream on Netflix.