There's always been something weirdly magnetic about comedian Maria Bamford. You may have also come across her years ago on Comedy Central Presents, where her sensibility immediately had me hooked as a child. She always made her shortcomings as a functional member of society a touchstone, deepening her voice by a couple of octaves in her impression of the adult world. It sounded like the voice-over of a late night infomercial—aged 11, that seemed legit.
Bamford has steadily honed her craft in the decade-plus since. She's always been considered a comic's comic, appearing multiple times on Louie or being dubbed Stephen Colbert's favorite comedian. Yet still, she's orbited largely on the fringe.
Her new Netflix series, Lady Dynamite, isn't doing much to change that, but it should. The show, executive produced and co-created by Arrested Development's Mitch Hurwitz, is both a complement and a foil to Bamford's on-stage persona. Where her stand-up is steady with almost unnerving calm—both hands usually clench the microphone inches from her face—the series is frantic, Cybill by way of Pee-Wee.
The show chronicles Maria playing a version of herself, coming off a career upswing and crashing into a subsequent a mental breakdown. When Dynamite begins, Bamford is re-acclimating to life as we live it. The narrative unfolds over three timelines, handily labeled "past," "present," and "Deluth," the latter of which are scenes in her hometown of Deluth, Minnesota, where she moves in with her family in the aftermath of a bipolar episode, mirroring Bamford's real-life mental health issues.
Biographical elements crop up everywhere. In the first episode, Bamford installs a neighborhood bench outside her bungalow's street corner to better connect with her community, which Bamford did IRL. In flashbacks, we see Bamford in popular ads for a mega-chain named CheckList, mimicking the same ones she actually did for US retailer Target. When her manager tries to coax her back into a similar commercial contract, Bamford says she would rather return to smaller performances, "like one alone in [my] living room"—a sly nod to Bamford's last comedy special.
The breezy way that Lady Dynamite incorporates Bamford's complicated history is the latest in a line of inventive female-led comedies using trauma and personal history as a rich source of absurdity. In 2012, Comedian Tig Notaro processed her cancer diagnosis on-stage just hours after being given the news, in her now-famous Largo set. Most recently, Netflix's Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt touched on post-traumatic stress with a similar sense of childlike whimsy. Louis CK is the reigning king of absurd pathos, but his FX series never uses absurdity as an aesthetic. His view of the world emphasizes the natural freewheeling with the unnatural. His New York feels something like jazz.
Bamford, meanwhile, makes her world feel like a jingle. Lady Dynamite may not be the first show to mine complex insecurities for humor—comedy is, after all, tragedy plus timing—but it feels like one of the first in our era of mental health awareness to present the comedy as both problem and antidote. The chaos on display as Bamford tries to rebuild her career and personal life flip-flops between life before, during and after her depressive episode.
The color palette of the series, shot by Heimo Ritzinger, changes in the "Deluth" chapters, dulling its bright yellows for icy blues, but the tone of the series remains brilliantly consistent all the way through. Maria's manic episodes, such as in one episode when she forces her parents and childhood frenemy to join her family garage band, maintain the same level of measured chaos as Maria in the present day, who uses the memories we see in flashbacks as the context for her being cautious in the present.
By fusing three distinct timelines in Bamford's life together, Dynamite brings the same level of absurdity into both her depression and recovery. The best moments of the series tend to be when the show's fun-house mirror allows us to see Maria the way she sees herself. A showbiz lunch with a hot potential agent (SNL's Ana Gasteyer, below, who steals every scene she's in) transforms Maria into a lamb; when Maria winds up back in the care of her parents in a flashback, she enters as a little girl.
The randomness is the staple of the show's two creators Mitchell Hurwitz and Pam Brady, of Arrested Development and South Park, respectively. Lady Dynamite operates with less ego than those series, though; here, the show's madness is less satire, and more abstract character development. The way the show shifts in mood and energy tells us more about the woman at its center than the people in the writer's room, and it's exactly what makes Dynamite feel like it's breaking some kind of new ground.
It's hard to emphasize the radical quality of Bamford's creation, but it's no surprise that it takes something of a sales pitch. "Do the work," Maria's mother says to her in a flashback, echoing Bamford's own daily mantra. In real life, those three words help Bamford get a hold of herself when she wakes up, when she's about to go on stage, when she feels destabilized. Lady Dynamite both affirms and refutes that voice. It reminds us that she is of this world and not, formed by the sum of her anxieties and experiences—and so hard to take your eyes off.
Follow Rod on Twitter