Maria Bamford’s ‘Lady Dynamite’
John Wilson | Friday, November 17, 2017
The explosion of streaming services that has forced network television into an existential struggle, has been great for television consumers. There is always something to watch, and more likely way too much to watch. One benefit of this relentless drive for content is that voices who once may never have been given a shot are getting their time to shine. Shows like “Tim and Eric,” “Nathan For You,” or “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” are all the products of creators with decidedly niche, often absurdist, forms of comedy that might never have seen the small screen if it weren’t for the peak TV boom.
With all that said, it is still remarkable that Maria Bamford has a television show today. The show is called “Lady Dynamite,” now in its second season on Netflix. It is a perfect encapsulation of Bamford’s comedic vision, as well as a portrayal of mental illness, Midwest ennui and everything in between. Bamford, who comes from the alt-comedy scene that grew out of the 1990s, has been called a comedian’s comedian. Her sets are often awkward and stilted in a way that make it hard to describe why they are so funny in minute long promotional videos. All of this translates into the show, which is parts autobiographical and surreal exaggeration. Bamford did really suffer from a debilitating mental breakdown and really did meet her future husband during her year and a half long recovery process. However, she does not actually have a sagely talking pug named Bert. The show is able to mine laughs from the serious parts of Bamford’s life as easily as from the sight gags and exaggerated portrayals of 1980s Duluth, Minnesota.
The bizarre hilarity of everything always hovers just above the actual plot of the show, which for this season deals with two complicated people trying to make a relationship work. Scott, played by Ólafur Darri Ólafsson and based on Bamford’s real life husband, returns as the love interest from the first season. Through the season, Scott and Maria (Bamford plays a version of herself) face new relationship tropes like moving in together, distrust and jealousy, but find ways to work through their problems with openness and understanding. On its face, the plots of many of these episodes have been played out by seemingly hundreds of other sitcoms. “Lady Dynamite” uses a well-worn idea like discovering a partner’s annoying tendency after moving it in and turns it on its head. In episode one, Marias reveals her annoying tendency: she feeds and shelters a raccoon from the street named Randall. Meanwhile, Maria discovers Scott impulsively sings the same two words over and over again. In other episodes, an ex-convict CPA named Em Bezzler, something called a re-birthday party, and a giant freezer art installation are all integral to overcoming problems the new couple encounter.
As with the first season, season two of Lady Dynamite is split between three different points in Bamford’s life. Each episode bounces around from her present life with Scott, to one year in the future, to her childhood in 1987 Minnesota. The scenes in the future revolve around the quickly deteriorating process of making the show “Maria Bamford is Nuts.” This meta-show within a show begins as an empowering look at women in comedy and mental illness and slowly devolves into bland science fiction romance. The entire plot arc lampoons not just the television industry, but Netflix itself. The show is directed by an electronic box named Don Jr. who works for Netflix stand-in, MuskVision.
On the other timeline in Minnesota, the show depicts the roots of Maria’s emotional anxieties by examining the lives of her parents, played by Mary Kay Place and Ed Begley Jr. Maria’s father is emotionally vacant, but well meaning, while her mother is the stereotype of a distrustful, passively judgmental suburban mom. The time shifts in this season are less confusing than in the previous and are effective means for reinforcing the plot of each episode.
This second season of Lady Dynamite has taken the formula from the first season and built on it. The gags are more ambitious and the actual plot manages to make stale plot cliches fresh. This is a show that largely celebrates the life and humor of a comedian that has spent much of her career outside the mainstream. Fans of Bamford should appreciate that she is finally getting the praise she deserves, and the show itself makes a strong case for that praise.