If nothing else, Maria Bamford has cut out a career utilizing a particular comedic disposition and delivery for herself over the last decade or so. There’s no comedian that I can think of that shapes their humor in the way that she does, with that odd yet endearing sort of hesitancy in her inflections and physicality. It’s not entirely surprising then that her first leading role, in the new Netflix comedy series Lady Dynamite, is a completely unique composite, as well as a personal reflection on her own struggles and livelihood.
To try to explain the narrative thrust of the series would be problematic to say the least. Like the work of Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, though not quite as rebellious, Lady Dynamite is often defiantly non-sensical and vaguely surreal, detouring into random commercial parodies or a self-aware dirge about the making of the very show we’re watching, including one involving Patton Oswalt. To be fair, the series does dip in and out of something like a sturdy narrative about Bamford, playing a version of herself, getting her life back together after a stay at a mental institution. The first movement of the series involves Bamford’s character looking to upgrade to a vicious agent, played by SNL alum Ana Gasteyer, when Bruce (Fred Melamed of A Serious Man), her bumbling manager, continues to hit dead ends.
Considering the fact that it’s created by Arrested Development head Mitchell Hurwitz and South Park honcho Pam Brady, Lady Dynamite is not quite as funny as you might expect. The humor is the kind that more conjures smiles and smirks and the occasional snort of laughter rather than the roaring guffaws that Hurwitz and Brady’s other shows garner. The inherent fascination of the series comes from the sheer unpredictability of its trajectory, the wild sense of invention that Bamford shows, even when there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of cohesion or rhyme or reason to what’s going on.
There is some sense that Bamford is trying to relate something meaningful about mental illness and the life of an entertainer underneath all of this, as well as conveying the frustration of the creative process. Indeed, there is a sense that once the entire series comes together, there might be something more profound to Lady Dynamite on the whole, something that can only be found in trace amounts in each episode, whether in Bamford’s parody of modern sitcoms to her interactions with Sugar Ray frontman and TV personality Mark McGrath. There’s undeniably something striking about what Bamford is doing here, but the ideas never quite congeal in the first four episodes of the series, and make the show feel random for the simple sake of not being boring. In that, Lady Dynamite is a success, but beyond that, there’s a feeling here that Bamford is trying out material rather than forming an actual act.
Lady Dynamite premieres on Netflix in its entirety on May 20th.
★★★ – Fascinating/Potentially Good