Creators: Pam Brady and Mitch Hurwitz
The problem with most musician biopics is that they are safe, tepid, formulaic attempts to portray the lives of brilliant, electric, iconoclastic artists. Comedic voices often suffer from the same problems when an attempt is made to translate their standup style to television. One need look no further than the failure of Mulaney, the far too traditional sitcom based on the comedy of John Mulaney, who I think is the most talented standup comic working today, and it’s no accident that Mulaney appears in the show’s first episode, alongside Patton Oswalt who mentions his own two failed TV pilots, warning Maria not to include standup scenes in her show. This self-conscious anxiety in the pilot suggests that the show realizes that the whole confessional comedy about a standup comic trying to navigate personal issues and show business is overdone. If you only read description of Lady Dynamite you might think it sounds too similar to about a half-dozen other shows on TV, even Netflix’s own Bojack Horseman, but you, hypothetical reader I just invented for rhetorical purposes, wouldn’t be more wrong.
Lady Dynamite is able to portray the multiplicity of voices, quick shifts in tone, and self-deprecating, at times profane, melancholic sweetness of Bamford’s standup routines. The show is more accessible than Bamford’s brand of alt-comedy standup (a running joke on the show is that she’s not that kind of comic and a few times purposely bombs some of her lines from her actual standup routine), but still has the same unique spirit, and has more self-assured energy and takes more formal chances than any live-action comedy series I’ve seen since maybe Arrested Development (The first run. Mitch Hurwitz is the co-creator and executive producer; Pam Brady, who produces South Park, is the other).
The show tells three stories: Maria’s road to some commercial success, her time at home in Duluth, MN after a breakdown, and her return to LA. Through the juxtaposition of these stories the show manages to include more thematic heft than you might expect, and the show deftly navigates a spectrum of surrealism and a kind of realism anchored on one end by her talking pug Burt (he talks like Werner Herzog) and on the other her sweet midwestern parents.
In the prologue to the pilot, Bamford notes that as a 45-year old woman it’s kind of a big deal to get her own TV show. When we talk about having more diversity in media, we may neglect the ageism that confronts so many women in the industry. Also, Bamford, who has Bipolar 2, has been very open about trying to confront the stigma of mental illness, and does so with this show in a way that doesn’t feel preachy. I think I’ve written before that the importance of diversity is if media making models how we make sense of the world in our recreation of that world, that diversity promises new and exciting ways of presenting how different people see and experience the world. Lady Dynamite, drawn from Bamford’s comedic view of being a woman in her 40s with bipolar 2 working in a male-dominated industry, demonstrates the exciting ways diversity in TV can challenge tradition TV forms.
The show’s depiction of mental illness is quite different from Netflix’s other great show about mental illness, Bojack Horseman, which I think is noteworthy because depression (and Bojack’s addictions) and bipolar (Bamford emphasizes that she has bipolar 2, which also serves to remind us that there are differences even within classifications) are two different illnesses. It also confronts a very difficult dilemma that many creative people with mental illnesses have confronted. One of the major storylines of the series is Maria’s work as commercial pitchwoman for Targe-I mean, Checklist. Maria must decide whether to continue drawing upon her own manic episodes for her character, or stop doing the character and take her medication which will mean the end of her character and her job. I’ve known creative people with mental illnesses who have had to make similar decisions (that “I’m not as creative on my meds” problem, which isn’t always the case–see my essay on Carrie’s meds in Homeland somewhere on this blog), and it’s also important because the role of medication in films and series about mental illness is problematic to dangerously reckless, often using the “throw out the medicine” trope as a triumphant moment of self-actualization. Here, as in Maria’s real life experience, that trope is inverted. Maria decides to take her medication and work on her mental health even though it costs her her lucrative job and relationship; her triumph is accepting herself with her illness not in spite of it.
Perhaps because Bamford realizes how rare it is to have your own platform, the show seems to have an interest in other kinds of diversity, and the show’s 3rd episode is one of the better depictions of white racial anxiety I’ve seen on TV and the complete opposite of the absolutely horrendous Kimmy Schmidt episode about race. It’s significant because it recognizes the power in saying “I don’t know.” And that’s also the lyrics to the theme song that closes each episode: “I don’t know what I’m doing, more than half of the time,” which acts as something of a motto for the show. The series is a masterful marriage between formal cohesion but a feeling of exploration that seems to be drawn from that idea.