Nobody is a bigger fan of Maria Bamford than yours truly, but 'Lady Dynamite' is a misfire. From the creepy matryoshka doll poster, to that supremely cringeworthy retro musical intro (seriously — "Pterodactyl! Corn!" — what were they thinking?).
I really tried to give this series a fair shot (I fought my way up to episode 9), but I'm writing this review now because I think this might be as far as I get.
We live in an era where pop culture is devouring Louis CK's grim, dark humour and wincing weekly at Lena Dunham's hilariously obnoxious characters. The choice to go full-on manic, zany and surreal with 'Lady Dynamite' was just poorly timed.
'Lady Dynamite' throws everything at the wall — including breaking the fourth wall — not just to see if it sticks, but to distract us from noticing that there's nothing of any substance going on at all. This is no 'Arrested Development', folks, although it tries hard to be. Most of the characters are truly unlikable and/or shrieky, and haven't we seen everything that can be done with the "pleonastic yet incompetent Hollywood agent" trope in Ricky Gervais' 'Extras'?
Also, how many times do we need to see Maria do the laughing-hysterically-with-someone-else-but-with-repressed-terror-in-her-eyes bit? Once an episode, it seems.
Add to all that the narrative juggling that comes with trying to keep up with three different eras of Maria's mental state, and it just becomes a little too much, too quick. Make us care deeply for the character, and we might eventually come along with you on a wild ride, but don't assume that even a long-time fan of Maria will buy a ticket for this crazy train and be able to make sense of it.
Purely from a narrative perspective, this show is kind of screwed, too. Maria's Pre-Breakdown Era won't be satisfying unless we see Maria's actual breakdown happen — but they can't show that, because that is the logical conclusion of that era. Similarly, Maria's Recovery in Duluth Era won't be satisfying unless we see her eventually recover — which, again, they can't show because that is the logical conclusion of that era. It seems like the writers have painted themselves into a corner where they have to leave out the most compelling parts of the story. Unless this is a one-off season, and they decide to wrap everything up in the final episode. Shit. So maybe I do have to finish watching this.
I believe Maria Bamford is capable of producing something just as powerful and affecting as, say, Louis CK's 'Horace and Pete'. All she needs is to simplify, develop some narrative confidence, and figure out what it is she's really trying to tell us about the human condition. You know, beyond that fact that depressed people enjoy Peanut Buster Parfaits — which, I will admit, I have found to be true.
As far as my own dark tastes go, I'd be all in if this series were entirely about Bamford's recovery in Duluth, with all the cynical, bleak humour that comes with it. (Next fall on Netflix: Maria Bamford is 'Fully Committed' !) Yep. I'd be all fricken in. But trying to mix the dark underbelly with the hyper-real, cartoony action in the other eras just makes me feel Bipolar II myself.
This show is a ride with a very particular and goof-ball if not almost insecure voice. If you learn to anticipate that voice, much like Angie Tribeca, it's a show that can grow on you and has solid genuinely funny moments. there's shows that feel like they're stuck in an "ongoing joke" like Master of None, and shows that try to relate the ongoing joke of their perspective while still managing to actually write jokes and cast people with funny personalities and timing. This is the latter. The "meta" segments and commentary I'm not sure particularly help the show, but I think they speak to that underlying and constant doubt and fear related to mental health. You can't "just be awkward" or some version of the uncomfortable and inappropriate adults in your life, and as you start to reinforce ideas about yourself, the impending doom of going crazy seeks to undermine that as well.
I like that I was prepared to kind of write this off and think it too quirky or hard to pin down. But over the course of a few episodes you start to see that this is as structured while trying to remain true to the source as Bamford can perhaps manage. It's not hard to distinguish between 3 eras of story telling, it stays goofy but not absurd throughout, so when something particularly off-kilter happens it doesn't make you go "not again!" Halfway through I don't anticipate it changing too dramatically and have been happy to stay on for the relatively short ride.
I can highly, highly recommend this series. The first episode isn't yet there but the later ones make more than up for it. Anyone with a mental illness is sure to recognize some of Marias behaviorisms and even if you totally dont care for that, this show is so fucking hilarious that I was howling with laughter. Im not kidding I cried actual tears and my neighbours rang bc 'i was disturbing their kids' nap time'. Sorry about that. Anyway give it a chance!