Alternative comedian Maria Bamford’s stand-up has never shied away from her experiences with mental illness, nor from her off-the-wall musings on social mores and human behavior, but after her Netflix comedy series was announced late last year, some wondered if her unique humor would translate to a more traditional 22-minute situation comedy format. However, fans who have followed her stand-up, voice work on popular cartoons such as Adventure Time, and her more recent guest role during Arrested Development’s fourth season need not worry—Bamford’s talent for finding the humorous and absurd in human folly translates beautifully to the small screen, and this makes Lady Dynamite one of the best new shows (and possibly the best new comedy) of 2016.
The show is loosely based on Bamford’s experiences in Hollywood before and after she underwent a psychological break, entered treatment, and was eventually diagnosed with Type II Bipolar Disorder; the series opens with a color-saturated advertisement for a hair care product that quickly spirals into surreal hilarity as Maria’s mental state becomes more frenzied. From there, the series follows Maria in the present, as she moves back to Los Angeles to re-launch her career; the show flashes back to both her earlier move to Los Angeles that proceeded her breakdown and time in outpatient psychiatric treatment back in Duluth, Minnesota, where she goes to recuperate while staying with her parents.
The three different time periods that the show jumps between may seem confusing at first—especially if you have not seen the show (and are reading this on a screen)—but the writing and pacing of the episodes ably handle the time jumps, making the show straightforward to follow while also doing some innovative, interesting things with its timeline.
As one might expect, there is a ton going on in Lady Dynamite, and a show without many of the strengths that this one has would likely fall apart after the first episode, if not before. Besides the excellent casting (Mary Kay Place and Ed Begley, Jr. are standouts as the fictional Maria’s parents, as are comedians Lennon Parham and Bridget Everett as her self-absorbed but caring friends), guest spots that actually add to the episodes instead of simply throwing in comedian cameos for no reason (Jenny Slate and Jason Mantzoukas in episode six, as twins with the occupations of life coach and “loaf coach,” respectively), and the sharp writing, what distinguishes Lady Dynamite from a host of current comedy offerings is that it says important things without also talking down to its audience.
Mental illness is an experience that the entertainment industry has struggled to portray in a respectful way; whether in the “inspirational” biopics of a mentally ill genius, movies about psychiatric wards and the Life Lessons that its inhabitants learn, or even in broad comedy stereotypes about CRAZY PEOPLE and how CRAAAAAAZY and different from “average” people they are, media portrayals of people with mental illness have mostly lacked subtlety. Many stage, screen, and literary portrayals of people with mental illnesses have been produced by people who do not deal with those same illnesses; despite good intentions, a huge number of these portrayals contribute to the “us versus them” mentality that characterizes how people without mental illnesses tend feel about people who have them.
Lady Dynamite strongly pushes back against this trend, but does not do so by trying to “prove” that people with mental illness are just like people who do not have mental illness. What makes the show so memorable—and, arguably, what makes most of its jokes and set pieces work—is that Bamford is offering viewers her hilariously skewed perspective without making people with mental illness the butt of the joke. It’s easy to make a “crazy person” joke; it’s much harder to expose the humor in one’s own brain issues, do so compassionately—and have it work.
If you’ve never heard of Maria Bamford but have been looking for a nuanced—and funny—portrayal of the realities of mental illness (with a healthy dose of surrealism), give this show a try. If you’re a longtime Bamford fan who’s watched her YouTube shorts over and over again, you will love this. And if you’re a comedy fan, give it a watch; you’ll most likely come away a Maria Bamford fan.