For those who have grown weary of the quirky, comedian-focused single-camera sitcom, fear not: Maria Bamford empathizes. It might not seem that way at first blush, inasmuch as she’s starring in Lady Dynamite, Netflix’s latest foray into television comedy’s most admired, least-watched format. But midway through the pilot, Maria—Bamford’s semi-autobiographical protagonist—gets a bit of advice from a friendly police officer played by Patton Oswalt, who’s in character until he’s not. “You’re going to put stand-up in your show?” he frets. “It’s been done so many times before. You’ve got Louie, Seinfeld, Chappelle, Amy Schumer, my two pilots.” Maria reluctantly agrees, but before resuming the scene, she solicits more advice about how to best execute her show’s time-shifting narrative structure.
It’s the kind of inside-baseball navel-gazing that repels viewers in droves, with Fox’s prematurely euthanized The Grinder as the latest evidence that most folks like their fourth walls impenetrable. And even fans of self-aware Hollywood send-ups could find themselves alienated by Lady Dynamite, in which Bamford routinely lapses into conversations about how to go about making the show she’s currently starring in. “Give your audience some credit,” Oswalt tells Maria. “They can deal with form-busting narrative innovations.” He’s right, but he’s also implying that a broad audience exists for a show so ambitiously weird, and the well-populated brilliant-but-canceled graveyard suggests otherwise.
Fortunately, Lady Dynamite is on Netflix, which has gone out of its way to establish itself as television’s brandless brand, boasting an original-series umbrella wide enough that BoJack Horseman and Fuller House can rub shoulders underneath it. Netflix is one of few avenues for a show like Lady Dynamite, which out-metas 30 Rock by a wide margin and wears its surrealism on its sleeve. But it’s much more than a formal exercise. A show that relies so heavily on self-awareness has to have a beating heart and a big helping of humanity, and by focusing on Bamford’s mental health struggles, Lady Dynamite turns into something deeper, more challenging, and ultimately, more rewarding than a winking self-parody.
The show comes from Mitchell Hurwitz, with whom Bamford worked on season four of Arrested Development, and South Park producer Pam Brady, but it’s Bamford’s comic voice that comes through most powerfully. For years, Bamford has mined comedy from her struggles with bipolar disorder and debilitating anxiety, and Dynamite is the story of how she got back up to speed after her illness brought her life to a halt. The show takes place in three timelines—hence the need for Oswalt’s advice on how to establish them. One takes place in the present, where Maria works with her manager, Bruce Ben-Bacharach (Fred Melamed) to expand her career beyond cartoon voiceover work. Another takes place earlier, as Maria’s comedy career is just beginning to take shape under the management of the bombastic Karen Grisham (Ana Gasteyer). Still another takes place in Duluth, Minnesota, where Bamford spent her childhood and first discovered her cerebral maladies.
There’s a bit of a learning curve. The pilot, directed by Hurwitz, begins with a color-saturated faux commercial for an imaginary line of haircare products, then introduces Maria speaking to camera, then crashes into a ’60s-style credit sequence all within the course of minutes. The structure is jarring enough that the meta-dialogue is actually fairly helpful in laying out Dynamite’s ground rules, as are the bright title cards to signal each temporal transition. But once the pilot has established, for example, that some characters will lapse in and out of character at will, even as others (like Maria’s present-day gal pals, played by Bridget Everett and Lennon Parham) continue playing it straight, the wisdom of its unorthodox approach becomes clearer. The show’s combination of a sad-sack sitcom, a coming-of-age tale, and a recovery narrative, all filtered through Bamford’s addled perspective, makes sense for a show with a protagonist constantly questioning if she’s experiencing the same reality as everyone around her.
The show works best when it’s focused on the biographical stuff, making the present-day timeline the least compelling. In the fourth episode, Maria sets out to tackle racial insensitivity, and while the episode is funny, it so closely resembles other shows of its ilk that it may as well include the stand-up comedy Oswalt warned against. But most often, Dynamite forges its own singularly oddball path, setting itself apart from its peers by being as skewed and scatterbrained as the woman portrayed in it.
Lady Dynamite is available on Netflix today.