“We’ve got to show three different time periods in this show. Not just when my career was blowing up, but also after I blew up, when I broke down,” Maria Bamford tells Patton Oswalt during a break from the show they’re filming, but not a break from the show we’re watching. Lady Dynamite is challenging to describe, and at first it’s a little challenging to watch, with its breakneck changes of pace, scene, and genre and its fantasy excursions into Maria’s sometimes skewed reality. But just one episode in, it’s already deeply rewarding.
Fans of Bamford know that she’s disarmingly frank about her mental health, about her family’s idiosyncrasies (real or imagined), and about her own flaws, from the occasional cup of ice cream for breakfast to more somber regrets. But nothing thwarts her powerful mixture of optimism and realism—not even the preposterous unreality of her new series. “I’m a 45-year-old woman who’s clearly sun-damaged!” she exults to the camera in the opening minutes of the first episode. “And I have a show! What a great late-in-life opportunity!”
Created by Mitchell Hurwitz and South Park producer Pam Brady, Lady Dynamite is all about pulling back the curtain on Bamford’s life and career even as it celebrates the unlikelihood of its own existence. Accordingly, it’s full of fourth-wall moments. This show doesn’t just break that fourth wall; it blows it up, smashes it down, carries it through the street.
Lady Dynamite makes that wall literal, and Bamford’s character (also named Maria Bamford) does everything she can to transcend it. In the first episode alone, Bamford climbs a fence, floats up in front of a city mural, and stands outside as stagehands tote a brick wall, with all its comedy-club associations, behind her. Oswalt, playing the neighborhood bike cop, breaks character to chide her: “Maria, you’re going to put stand-up in your show?” It’s been done, he reminds her: Louie, Seinfeld, Chappelle, Amy Schumer, “my two pilots—no, they didn’t go.”
Instead of anchoring the fragmented timeline with stand-up segments, he suggests, “Use color as a time signifier. Mess with the saturation,” and the show cuts to Maria’s art therapy in Duluth as she tinkers with the on-screen color levels. “Too gray. Ew, too yellow. More blue? Less blue.”
If this sounds more like an intellectual exercise than a comedy or an emotional journey, stick with it. As Joshua Alston says, “even fans of self-aware Hollywood send-ups could find themselves alienated by Lady Dynamite” with its rich meta-narrative and abrupt shifts. But the pilot’s experiments, its dense layers, and its story pile up until they reach critical mass. The second half of the episode explodes in an accumulation of small moments, like the scene of Maria being ferried home from therapy. She opens the door of the shuttle as a weary adult, but when her feet hit the pavement in front of her parents’ home, she’s a child, small and vulnerable.
Lady Dynamite’s casting is spot-on, adding depth to supporting roles. Fred Melamed plays manager Bruce Ben-Bacharach (a part written for him) with a mellifluous blend of unwarranted confidence and naked neediness. As Maria’s best friends Dagmar and Larissa, Bridget Everett and Lennon Parham accompany her on small adventures, hit laugh lines with conversational aplomb, and provide (and pick apart) some traditional sit-com beats. As Joel and Marilyn Bamford, Maria’s parents, Ed Begley, Jr., and Mary Kay Place are simultaneously down-to-earth and quietly flummoxed. Straining to be supportive, Marilyn keeps asking, “And how does that make you feel?” When Maria’s tactless friend Susan (Mo Collins) brays, “Isn’t that funny? All the fame and fortune of Hollywood can’t save ya if your brain done broke!,” Begley stands silent in the background, radiating heartache for a long beat.
The show wisely rotates around Bamford, who’s rarely off-screen. Maria is eager for connection and community, but she’s often shown behind a barrier: the mesh of a badminton net, a pane of glass, a black curtain that melds into the black frame of the screen, highlighting the artificiality of the scene playing out. These screens and panes and walls represent not just the (permeable) wall between show and viewer, but the barriers between this fictional Maria Bamford and the people around her.
One of those obstacles is her reluctance to express anger, which leads to the episode’s most affecting scene. Janice (Stephnie Weir) her group-therapy leader, challenges Maria to a game of Truth Badminton, with players crying out a hard truth for each volley of the shuttlecock. Janice, who cloaks hostility in upbeat encouragement, calls out “You’re weak” and “You’re selfish” while Maria counters with “You have wonderful teeth!” and “That’s a cute sweater!” Finally, Janice breaks through Maria’s reserve by attacking her where it hurts most: ““You don’t belong anywhere!”
Maria strikes back. “At least my sister didn’t give my ex-husband a blowjob in front of my two under-aged Maltese!” Stricken at her own cruelty, she flees, certain that she’ll never be allowed back—that even those dedicated to helping her in her darkest moments can’t countenance her anger. Patton Oswalt’s voice-over tells the crowd at Maria’s block party (and the audience at home), “It doesn’t matter if you piss people off. What matters is the people who show up after you piss them off.” Gazing out the window of her childhood bedroom, Maria sees the purple van show up as always, and her breathy, blissful “They’re here!” says so much.
Maria Bamford—her measured openness, her mingled fear and hope, her earnest desire to do good and to do well—is the flame that gives Lady Dynamite its warmth and its fire. Largely staying out of the writers’ room, Bamford entrusts Hurwitz, Brady, and their team with the broad outlines of her life. And they do justice to her: to her smart, contemplative, sometimes dark, sometimes wistful, often mannered but always honest voice.
The show is a surreal trip through genres, formats, framing devices, and timelines. At first, it seems like a disjointed, disconnected jumble. But it’s united by recurring images of Bamford grappling with barriers until its theme is as clear and constant as the fictionalized Maria’s desire for connection. And she forges that connection. She manifests it, like something from her therapy vision boards. Because, as the episode’s conclusion shows, this Maria Bamford can create kinship even out of deep discord. “Boom! Manifested.” In Lady Dynamite, Maria Bamford is the match that lights the fuse—or the candle that illuminates the darkness.
- Writing about performers playing themselves is always tricky because the line between reality and fiction is as fluid as the walls Lady Dynamite puts around its star. When speaking of the show’s central character, the fictionalized Maria Bamford, I’ll call her “Maria.” When speaking of the performer playing herself, I’ll call her “Bamford.”
- Like Arrested Development, Lady Dynamite rewards re-watching, and some background jokes only surface on second viewing.
- Speaking of background jokes, is anyone able to read the billboard visible from Maria’s house? It’s prominent in the background as Bruce shows off his chum bucket. Please let us know in the comments if you can read it or if you recognize it.
- “All thanks to Latrisse DuVoir hair care products, by Gary.”
- His onscreen credit identifies Oswalt’s character as “Patton Cop,” but his name tag reads L’Amour—appropriate for the self-identified love interest.
- “I’m so sorry, we haven’t officially met. Are you the comedy police?”
- Beverly Hills Whale Oil: First barrel free! “Wow, that’s a great deal on whale oil!”
- Janice gives good advice and encourages terrible behavior: “We are all here to better ourselves, and sometimes that means expressing your negative emotions in a constructive way. Is there anyone in group who really, really chaps your crapper?”