Maria Bamford has long been a comedian’s comedian, perpetually on the verge of breaking out, as she does comedy about living on the verge of breaking down. Her new Netflix show, Lady Dynamite, aspires to break the rules of the stand-up sitcom, a subgenre that includes shows such as Curb Your Enthusiasm, Louie, Maron, Dice, Mulaney, and The Comedians—series that mix fiction and autobiography, humor and angst, to explore the persona of the stand-up comic at the show’s center. Lady Dynamite examines Bamford’s life in surreal, wild, fourth wall–shattering, time-hopping ways. It is part showbiz satire, part alt-comedy showcase, part plaintive character sketch, and all ambitious gonzo, a show that feels like nothing else on TV, a cult classic that, in the age of Netflix, may appeal to a horde.
Lady Dynamite stars Bamford as a version of herself, a moderately successful alternative comedian from Duluth, Minnesota, who is bipolar and recently had a series of institutionalizations. Bamford is a skilled mimic, and her very precise impersonations are starkly juxtaposed against her own twitchy, halting, chipper, helium-laced delivery. She seems more solid performing as other people than she does being herself. (The fourth episode explores this specifically, when Maria, to survive a dinner party, puts on a voice and acts the part of Diane Winterbottom Monscape, “a natural extrovert … with an unearned sense of confidence,” and swiftly attracts a humorless hunk played by Brandon Routh, who has no interest in Maria herself but finds Diane’s voice irresistible. The storyline climaxes with a glorious, perfect fart joke.) Her talents are undeniable, her professional skills more reliable than her personal ones. This gives her comedy its unique aura of indefatigable fragility: She’s a woman who seems like she’s always about to fall apart but, with Midwestern can-do, is brave enough to risk it again and again, in public. Like another Netflix heroine with a traumatic past, in her wacky way, she’s unbreakable.
Lady Dynamite is made in its star’s image, powering through that which works and that which doesn’t with single-minded good cheer. It announces its ambitions— to be strange, to be funny, to be like nothing else—instantly. The series, which was directed and developed with Arrested Development’s Mitch Hurwitz, begins with Maria in what appears to be a cheesy shampoo commercial. To a muzak soundtrack crooning “Sassafrass Lady,” Bamford flounces down the street, joyfully doing strange things, like sharing spaghetti with a bicycle and confiding to the camera in a smooth voice, “I just had my tubes tied! At my age it’s not safe to have children.” Her reverie is interrupted by a woman who informs Maria that she’s not in a hair commercial; she’s in her own show. “I’m a 45-year-old woman who’s clearly sun-damaged,” Maria cheerily tells the camera. “And I have a show! What a great late-in-life opportunity!” She leaps up into the air, a ’70s-style fake explosion booms behind her, and it cues the inexplicable, Blaxploitation-influenced credits: Welcome to Lady Dynamite, where not knowing exactly what’s going on is half the fun.
Lady Dynamite slowly assembles a coherent structure: The first episode is the most outré, with later episodes using voice-over. The show jumps around in three periods of time—the present, in which Maria is trying to get her life back in order in Los Angeles after having had a string of breakdowns over an 18-month period, as happened to Bamford in real life; the past, in the mid-aughts, when Maria’s career was just taking off; and Duluth, in between the past and present, when she lives at home with her parents, trying to get well again.
In the grand tradition of shows like this, Lady Dynamite tweaks events from Bamford’s own life. In the first episode, Maria puts a park bench outside of her house, hoping to foster a sense of community, a plan that worked better when she did it in real life. In the show, Maria once starred in a lucrative commercial for a chain store as a manic character inspired by a shopping addict. In real life, Bamford starred in Target commercials as an enthusiastically deranged shopper suffering from OCD, “obsessive Christmas disorder.”
But Lady Dynamite doesn’t stop at gently rifling through Bamford’s real life: It gets downright weird. At a meal with superagent Karen Grisham (Ana Gasteyer), Maria momentarily turns into a sheep. Mira Sorvino guest stars as an actress playing a character playing another character who underneath it all is Mira Sorvino. When Sorvino drives away at the end of the episode, she does so in a car that flies into the air and disappears. In the first episode, Patton Oswalt shows up a number of times as a cop—he’s monitoring that park bench—but he keeps breaking character to warn Maria against using stand-up in her show, because that trope has become so tired. “Are you the comedy police?” Maria asks him, sincerely.
Maria’s conversations with Oswalt about her show—he also suggests she tint the flashbacks to Duluth a color, to help signal the audience—are just one of the ways Lady Dynamite satirizes Hollywood conventions. Maria’s bumbling but sweet manager, Bruce (Fred Melamed) is constantly sending her out on awful, misogynistic jobs. Maria, as a favor to him, agrees to host a reality show called Lock Up a Broad, in which women are caged until they apologize for bad behavior. He begs her to appear in Pussy Noodle, a Japanese game show. Gasteyer’s Karen Grisham is a power-hungry shark, alternately obsequious with Maria and uninterested in her. After Maria is fired from the sitcom Baby on Board, about a baby businessman, for delivering a feminist speech on camera, Karen leads Maria and Bruce in an extended, hilarious, and empowering sing-along of the phrase “cradle the balls and work the shaft.”
The third episode is about Hollywood and race and, more so, about TV shows congratulating themselves for acknowledging racism in very special episodes. Maria gets cast in a sitcom White Trash, starring the Lucas brothers, playing themselves, as sanitation workers who take out the garbage for the White family. Maria thinks there’s something foul about this premise and gets it changed: She and her co-star, played by Sorvino, become the garbage women, relegating the Lucas brothers to much smaller parts. Maria, aghast at what she’s done, persuades Sorvino and the Lucas brothers to quit the sitcom, for justice. As they all clasp hands and Maria cheers, “We didn’t sell out,” the camera pans back, and we hear, “Cut.” The fourth wall breaks.
“That’s how you’re going to end the episode?” one of the Lucas brothers asks Maria. “You didn’t say anything.” “I thought we did,” she says, beginning to stammer, unable to identify what, exactly, the episode has said. “A little help?” she says, tossing to 12 Years a Slave screenwriter John Ridley, who has just appeared on set. He can’t. “I don’t think what you’re doing is malicious,” he tells her. “I just think it’s recklessly ignorant.” A minute later, as he’s talking to another black man about how one episode of television can’t begin to scratch the surface of racism, he starts, “The key thing about race is … ” just as Maria runs by and cheerfully interrupts him with a “Hey haters!” He never finishes the thought. Lady Dynamite could be accused of having its cake and eating it too—making fun of very special episodes while trying to get the credit for making one—but most TV shows don’t take on these issues, let alone in a self-critical way.
Hollywood isn’t all bad: At least people there actually know about funny. In some of the only truly cringe-y parts of the show, back in Duluth, Maria’s humor is too strange for her office colleagues, where one of her co-workers constantly kills with “That’s what she said”–style jokes. Lady Dynamite doesn’t tease this guy too hard; it just uses him to make the point that Maria tries to please people, even ones whose sense of humor she disdains.
Mentally unstable, brittle Maria is always trying to make people, who are allegedly in better mental health than herself, happy. She can’t bear to disappoint. Maria’s self-involved friend and assistant Larissa (Lennon Parham) sets her up with a bisexual recovering meth addict and won’t let her cancel when Maria tells her she’s not ready. Maria’s jealous best friend strong-arms her into buying real estate and then screams at her when she does. To make amends with Mark “Sugar Ray” McGrath, Maria agrees to perform for his charity, which turns out to be a gun rights group. Maria goes along with all of these things, and insofar as she can, she makes them best of them. She’s stronger than she looks.