(Maria Bamford) (Photo: Netflix)

Partway through “Josue,” Maria’s voiceover says, “It’s funny how life puts the same problem in front of you again and again to see if you’ve learned.” This observation is one of the keys to Lady Dynamite’s successful storytelling—to its clarity in chaos. Episode after episode, Maria revisits the past to reflect on and learn from her old patterns of behavior. The show’s explicitly discussed color schemes, along with cues of costume and styling, make it easy to distinguish between the three timelines at a glance. It’s a complex narrative structure cleverly built for effortless viewing.

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Maria’s constant willingness to learn from her mistakes (and to mine her own discomfort not just for comedy, but for personal growth) means she isn’t always the hero of her own show. In one third of “Josue,” she’s the student of a guest character; in another third, she’s the villain.

One of Lady Dynamite’s great strengths is the writers’ eagerness to give all their characters full, rounded lives. In another show, a streetwise kid who turns out to be a drug dealer could be one-dimensional, a pawn for the star to redeem or a stereotype existing only to unwittingly teach the protagonist an important lesson. In this episode, Maria does learn from Josue (Gilberto Ortiz), but there’s nothing unwitting about the lessons—or about him.

Josue is a cliché in one way: He’s wise beyond his years. He knows the usual script when a strange white lady takes a scofflaw kid under her wing, and he’s no one’s project. “How about we save ourselves the trouble and say our goodbyes right now, okay, Blind Side?” But when Maria spills her guts to him—and swipes her credit card through his mobile reader—Josue starts to listen. Jalen (Carlos Luna), Bruce’s new assistant/ward, tries to dismiss their connection as something sordid, but Josue sees beyond Maria’s daffy exterior to appreciate the complexity of his new friend/client. (This is an episode of many slashes.)

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Bruce is too busy with his charity/huge mistake, Touch The Children, to notice Josue’s depths. He just sees “a street tough” shaking him down for Maria’s money. (Recent episodes have featured a worrying undercurrent of Bruce taking advantage of Maria: Her checks don’t arrive, she’s booking her own gigs, he’s squeezing her for free performances and sizable donations when he knows she’s broke. I’ve been doling out the episodes slowly as I review them, so I haven’t seen the finale yet. I’m hoping Bruce is just incompetent, not embezzling.)

Maria, too, is guilty of stereotyping. Broad, simplistic thinking is how she ends up diving into Checklist’s self-serving “charity,” teaching a session at their English immersion school/sweatshop-worker training ground in Mexico. She’s so desperate to feel like she’s doing good that she doesn’t consider what she’s actually doing. “Sounds good, feels right!” is more than Checklist’s tagline; it’s an indictment of the ease with which appealing words and ideas can camouflage evil.

Voicing Checklist’s cartoon frog mascot, Maria doesn’t notice she’s dispensing oppressive warnings like “When there’s an accident on the floor, Trabajito keeps his lips zipped.” Zealously upholding the English-immersion policy, she interrupts strategy sessions between union organizers, breaks up their rally, and destroys their fliers. Checklist advertises the institution as a charity, not an indoctrination and intimidation center, and Maria swallows it whole, accepting the belittling notion that Checklist knows better than its students/future employees.

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Broad, simplistic thinking is also what leads her to fear children—all children—so deeply that she’d steal another comedian’s act just to make them like her. Maria’s greeting to Jalen, starting with a stiff “Hello, Admiral! What do you enjoy?” and only getting clumsier from there, reestablishes her inability to distinguish between teenagers and small children. Just as she fell for Checklist’s infantilization of its future employees, Maria literally infantilizes Jalen by blowing raspberries in an attempt to amuse him.

The biggest lesson Maria takes from this episode isn’t to stand up for her principles or for others’ rights, or to stop thinking of people (whether they’re students, future factory workers, or children) as stereotypes rather than individuals. The chief moral Maria takes from “Josue,” and from Josue, is that it’s better to face her fears than to avoid them. It’s true. It’s touching. And, despite the episode’s focus on helping others and doing good, it’s entirely self-serving.

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Stray observations

  • Today in Lady Dynamite signage (see photo in review): Trabajito wants to “stomp out Spanish!”
  • “Hey, guys! Who died?!” “Mi hermano.”
  • There’s a great cut from the graduates’ caps tossed into the air to those same graduates sewing caps in a dingy workspace. Maria’s recorded voice chirping “Trabajito never disobeys! Floor manager’s always right!” is a perfect hellish touch.
  • “Welcome to the Duluth Historical Maritime Museum, the perfect location to shoot your old-timey public hangin’ or your movie-film period drama.”
  • To direct the old-timey commercial, Susan’s wearing an old-timey director’s costume, Cecil B. Demille-style. “Because I won a major film contest at church? Hello?”
  • Josue (who, it’s worth noting, never confirms that as his name; his introduction and the episode title come from Maria’s faltering reading of his spray-painted tag) saves Maria from poverty, imparts an important lesson and a gentle chuck on the chin, then vanishes into the night like a Bogart character.

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