Lady Dynamite is a Netflix series starring comedian Maria Bamford. If you’re not familiar with her, you’ve probably seen her on TV and didn’t realize who she was. She had a guest spot on Louie, and she’s the school principal on Fresh Off the Boat. She also voices a whole stable of characters on Adventure Time, The Legend of Korra, BoJack Horseman and The Adventures of Puss and Boots.
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What you may not know about this talented writer-actress is that she has struggled terribly with mental health issues. Lady Dynamite is Bamford’s way of sharing her experiences with us.
Happy Face Sad Face
Netflix is the perfect media outlet for Lady Dynamite because the big networks would have a heck of a time trying to market it. You just can’t pigeonhole this show.
There’s no easy way to describe Lady Dynamite. It’s a comedy, but it’s unique for a lot of reasons. Lady Dynamite doesn’t follow a traditional format. It’s not a sitcom. It’s not a satire. It’s a wonderful mix of wild sketches that seem like Bamford’s dream journal come to life.
Lady Dynamite takes place in the present, with her manager, her new house and her friends. But it also takes place in the past, with her mean sister and her rising career — and in Duluth, with her parents, which is also in the past, where she was hospitalized.
If you’re worried about being able to keep track of when and where you are in Lady Dynamite, don’t worry. Bamford uses bright, colorful, animated tiles to tell you exactly which part of the story you’re watching. She even tells someone off-screen which color of blue to use as a filter for Duluth.
Which brings me to one of the outstanding facets of Lady Dynamite. It’s one of the most meta shows I’ve ever seen. It’s meta humor even has meta humor!
For instance, Maria plays herself. In the pilot episode, she decides to put a park bench outside her house where she’ll do stand-up comedy, rather than face the crowds at the comedy clubs. But as she starts to do a bit, Patton Oswalt, another comedian who plays a local cop, starts talking as himself to the real Maria, saying it’s a bad idea to do an actual stand-up routine on her series. A meta inside a meta!
Bamford has fun with these layers throughout the series. In one episode, she even asks Mira Sorvino just how many layers there were to her character.
Which brings me to another point. Lady Dynamite is full of fantastic actors. The casting director really thought outside the box to fill this cast list. (Surprising choices in casting is one of my favorite things ever about entertainment.) Not only did they cast Oscar-winning Sorvino in a small role, but they also have Brandon Routh, Jon Cryer, Ana Gasteyer, Mo Collins, Ed Begley, Jr., Dean Cain and Mark McGrath, to name just a handful. Some of them play exaggerated versions of themselves, and some of them play outlandish characters.
Bamford, herself, is incredibly talented. She has the cuteness of Meg Ryan, but the manic comedy style of Robin Williams. When Bamford guest-starred on other TV shows, she sort of stuck out. Her style didn’t mesh very well with the rhythm of other shows. On her own show, however, she really finds her groove. She crafted Lady Dynamite to showcase her squeaky voice and childlike personality, which become endearing, rather than grating.
Issue du Jour
Each episode of Lady Dynamite centers on a particular topic or problem Maria is having. Then, within the episode, we’re taken into the past or to Duluth to get some background on why she’s making these choices in the present.
Her series is an exploration of what it meant to be hospitalized in the psychiatric ward, what led to that hospitalization, and how it informs her present self. This is pretty brave stuff. Not everyone would be willing to reveal themselves so completely, warts and all, and then make fun of their own shortcomings. Bamford manages to show us the pain of her condition, and the humor in how she deals with it, at the same time.
She also struggles with some of her professional choices. For instance, she worries about whether or not she sold out when she did a series of commercials for a store called Checklist, which is, no doubt, in reference to the series of commercials she did in real-life for Target. (She really makes fun of those commercials. Red walls, shelves and all! I wonder how the Target marketing execs feel about that.) She continually argues with her manager about what kind of gigs she should be doing. For example, she doesn’t want to do a misogynistic commercial, but she also doesn’t want her manager to lose his commission.
Bamford is also fantastic at wordplay. There are so many clever and hilarious phrases in each episode. I won’t spoil the show for you by listing a bunch. I’ll just tell you that “south mouth” is my favorite. [wink]
Lady Dynamite, a bright, thoughtful, funny and bittersweet Netflix series.