The most memorable television shows don’t just invite you into their worlds. They fold you into them.
You don’t have to sympathize, or understand exactly where a memorable show's characters are coming from, but if a series is going to make a lasting impression it’ll find a way to bring you into the action, instead of leaving you floating on the outside like some lost ghost.
No matter how sprawling or narrow a TV universe might be, it’s the show’s job to reach out beyond the screen and grab you by the heart or guts or brain. Zoning out in front of a show is one thing; actively connecting with it is another entirely.
On this front, Netflix’s bracingly honest new comedy Lady Dynamite is a curious case. Created by Arrested Development's Mitch Hurwitz and longtime writer/producer Pam Brady, the show follows comedian Maria Bamford (playing a version of herself) as she grapples with her career and mental illness. The series completely envelops you in her volatile brain to the point where — if you marathon the show as Netflix always intends — you're fully immersed in her perspective.
At the same time, the show also dives into the business of making TV in such a metatextual, insider-focused way that it risks alienating anyone who doesn’t start their day by refreshing Deadline. (If you are tapped into the ins and outs of Hollywood, though, you'll no doubt love the many pointed jokes and cameos Lady Dynamite has in store.)
But the most interesting thing about Lady Dynamite is that it truly doesn’t care if you get it or not. It would obviously prefer you were on board, but if you’re not, no harm done.
It knows exactly the story it wants to tell.
This isn't a show about mental illness. It's a show about learning to live with mental illness.
Throughout its 12 episodes, Lady Dynamite tells the story of how Maria deals with her mental illness and her comedy career at three different points in her life, with every episode skipping freely among those three points. (It can be confusing.)
In the first section, "The Past," she’s off her meds and manic, but also — and not insignificantly — crushing it with her career. She’s the new, hyperactive face of a giant supermarket chain — just as Bamford was for Target in 2010 — and booking more high-paying commercial gigs by the day. In "The Past," Maria's Los Angeles is so bright and bubbly that it's almost blinding — which is, of course, the point.
In the "Duluth" segments — washed through a dour, gray filter — she’s back at home in Minnesota, checking in and out of a psychiatric facility after an unspecified breakdown. Her parents (played by the wonderful Mary Kay Place and Ed Begley Jr.) and childhood best friend (the consistently hilarious Mo Collins) are supportive, but also perpetually confused by Maria's alienating illness.
Finally, Maria returns to LA to pick up the pieces in "The Present," trying to figure out how to balance her mental health with her career, love life, and personal happiness in a way that won’t end up with her imploding. All the while, her chirpy voiceover forges full speed ahead, trying to stave off the darkness that keeps threatening to take over her head, and the show.
Some of Lady Dynamite's most pointed moments come when well-meaning people confront Maria as she spirals. They say all the wrong things, usually because they just don't know what else to say. When she's not experiencing a manic episode, Maria often ends up playing the bewildered straight man as everyone else unravels — but then again, since we're inside Maria's head, who's to say what we're actually seeing?
Anyone familiar with Bamford’s real-life history won’t be surprised at the moments when the show swerves into the blackest comedy possible.
Bamford has spoken openly about being diagnosed with OCD and Type II bipolar disorder, which manifested in having suicidal thoughts since the age of 10 and trying to field deeply disturbing thoughts she wouldn’t even share with her therapist.
But time and time again, in defiance of her rebelling brain, Bamford's turned those once unspeakable thoughts into comedy, whether in her standup, in her sharp and weird webseries The Maria Bamford Show or now in Lady Dynamite.
At a couple of points in Lady Dynamite, the fourth wall breaks just enough for someone to commend Maria on being so brave, for stepping forward to destigmatize mental illness by being so honest and open about it. And it's true that much of Bamford’s comedy has incorporated her struggle with her self-destructive brain.
But as Bamford's open-hearted, nuanced portrayal of her Lady Dynamite self reveals, Maria talks about her mental illness not because she wants to be brave but because living with it is her daily life. Where else are comedians supposed to draw their inspiration from, anyway?
Lady Dynamite is a show that not only benefits from the Netflix model, but depends on it
Lady Dynamite is exactly the kind of series that could only exist at this moment, in an age when there have never been more TV shows to choose from.
The thing is, Lady Dynamite doesn’t need to convince even the mildly curious to watch it in order to be successful. All it has to do is appeal to fans who already know and love Hurwitz, Brady, and Bamford’s work — a task it seems to have already accomplished.
Since it doesn't have to worry all that much about luring in newcomers, Lady Dynamite jumps right into Maria’s head and never leaves, for better and for worse.
The series takes obvious advantage of Netflix's emphasis on marathon watching by taking off the training wheels in its first few seconds. For much of the pilot, viewers will be trying to figure out what the hell is going on, never mind how everything works together as a whole.
And, indeed, not everything will be clear even after many episodes. Deep into watching the season, I realized with a start that I thought the Duluth section was first chronologically, but it actually lies between the (further) Past and the Present.
But even as the transitions between the time periods seem randomly chosen at first, the story really begins to come together halfway through the season, as the triple narrative's pieces start colliding. By the time the final credits roll on episode 12, the time periods and their various effects on each other finally make perfect sense.
Outside of a streaming platform, Lady Dynamite is so particular that it likely wouldn't survive. But on Netflix, it's afforded the space to welcome anyone who's willing into its weird little world.
With the confidence of a show that knows exactly what it wants to be — and with the titanic Bamford anchoring every scene with incredible empathy and generosity, Lady Dynamite manages to stand out amid the constantly churning fray of television by being entirely, proudly itself.
Lady Dynamite is currently available to stream on Netflix.
Corrected to reflect that Collins plays Maria's childhood best friend, not her sister.