Boom Goes the Dynamite
There are, in the vast field of toil we call the entertainment industry, people who have a tremendous amount of ability, but never get quite the right project. They are often possessed of a very singular talent, one that can’t easily be plugged into a generic formula, and as a result they wander from one gig to another, working showbiz pros who manage to make a living and often burst open with flashes of genius, but never quite get that one perfect opportunity to show what they’re really capable of.
Maria Bamford is one of those people. A stand-up comedian of rare greatness, she’s been beyond impressive in bits and pieces everywhere she’s gone, and she certainly has the tools: she’s an incredible mimic, a gifted physical performer (her halting, shook body language is almost as hilarious as anything that comes out of her mouth), a bright and perceptive person with a rare skill at off-kilter lunacy, and a daring conceptualist who never dabbles in traditional comedic concerns, preferring far-out-there bits that blend character work, deep psychological observation, and panicky absurdism. This is what makes her wonderful, but it’s also one of the things that makes her almost unemployable. No standard sitcom could possibly work around such a mercurial personality without utterly blunting her comedic edge.
Lucky for us, Netflix has a lot of money to throw around and a lot of programming hours to fill, and they were willing to take a chance on Lady Dynamite, one of the best original shows they’ve ever done and — nearly miraculously — a perfect showcase for Maria Bamford. Drawing heavily from her real life, from her gig as a Target commercial spokeswoman to her time in a mental hospital to her attempt to build a sense of community in her L.A. neighborhood by putting a park bench in front of her house, it’s also intricate, insane, unpredictable, experimental, and hilarious. It’s the kind of show that would only work with someone like Bamford, because she alone could embody something simultaneously deranged and real.
The show itself is not even remotely grounded. It’s a soaring piece of wondrous craziness from beginning to end. Created by Bamford with producer Mitchell Hurwitz (who worked with her on Arrested Development) and veteran TV comedy writer/showrunner Pam Brady, it’s absolutely electrifying in a formal sense: it’s a complete madhouse tonally, and yet it somehow manages to stick together into a remarkably consistent whole. Lady Dynamite is constantly breaking the fourth wall, lampshading its own jokes, turning plots into goofs and vice versa, and forever wandering off into unexpected directions, which is why it’s so surprising how tight and crafty it is. Hurwitz is an old hand at this sort of thing, and the way the show’s technically dazzling mixture of flashbacks and flash-forwards seamlessly work around the present-day narrative recalls his best work in the first two seasons of Arrested Development; there’s no show on television that manages to be this anarchically crazy and ambitiously intricate at the same time.
Bamford is just flat-out amazing. Everything she can do, comedically and dramatically, she does here, and she can do a lot. She starts the whole thing off with a pitch-perfect parody of a manic-pixie hair commercial, and by the fourth episode, when she fakes her way into a fulfilling romance just by putting on a fake-posh tone and creating her successful alter ego “Diane”, you begin to believe that there’s nothing she’s not capable of. The writing of the show takes full advantage of her willingness and ability to do anything thrown at her: it’s one of the most audaciously nuts comedy shows of recent vintage, a truly surreal anything-goes buffet that constantly engages in the kind of bold stretches that are usually reserved for animation. It’s a show that not only blends the ordinary with the fantastic, but also refuses to hold your hand and explain what’s real and what isn’t, instead just charging full steam ahead and daring you to keep up. (She also has an absolutely fearless ongoing joke about her time as a Target spokeswoman, in one of the boldest fuck-you moves towards a former employer I’ve ever seen.)
Of course, this blend of the hilariously real and the hilariously crazy is part and parcel of the show’s main premise, which is that Maria has some pretty severe mental health issues. This, too, is a reflection of real life, and it’s gotten the show a lot of attention from critics who praise it for its fearless, honest take on the issue. I confess this doesn’t move me much; advocacy comedy is usually advocacy first and comedy last. But here, it works so amazingly well because it never takes us out of the action: even when she’s being the most sincere, Bamford deals with these issues in the most paralyzingly funny context that it never seems like she’s sitting down to lecture anyone, and even kicks the stool out from under herself whenever she starts heading in that direction. Bamford is absolutely fearless here: in addition to her psychological problems, she goes out of her way to make (great!) jokes about her age, her sexual awkwardness, her job and what it pays, her terror of having children, and even her “late-in-life career opportunity” and how it plays out with her family and friends. As gifted a chameleon as exists in comedy today, Bamford sees nothing as off-limits about herself and her difficulties, and that’s what makes it so amazingly funny.
With all its mad moments — the multiple Karen Grishams, the odd visual attach of the color schemes and sound design in the various flashbacks and time jumps, the persistent hatred of Sugar Ray’s Mark McGrath — Lady Dynamite nearly smothers its essential human story in a deluge of some of the most daring comedy on television. But it works perfectly, and the result is something that both makes something transcendent out of a damaged woman’s life, and becomes something even more amazing than that. It needs no apologies or qualifications: it’s simply one of the best comedies to air on television for years, and it’s finally just the right project for Bamford’s incredible talent.