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On Lady Dynamite, true friendship is the greatest gift

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Jenny Slate is terrific as Karen Grisham, life coach. She’s confident, determined, and briskly, cheerfully cruel. When Maria worries that she’s leaving her old friends behind, Karen Grisham confirms her unspoken fear with breezy conviction. “Yeah, because you’re bipolar and you’re incredibly hard to stay friends with.” The blocking of this scene is eloquent. As Maria digs into her desire to reconnect with estranged friends, Karen Grisham rises and walks away, turning her back for a long beat. She stands distracted in the background, flipping through her notebook while Maria pours out her heart to the empty room.


Karen Grisham refocuses on her client only when it serves her needs. “What did you say?” she asks, jotting down Maria’s tossed-off phrase (and the episode title), “No Friend Left Behind.” She’s not looking for insight into Maria. (“Oh, fuck, no! You’re just a locked vault of inscrutable personality defects.”) She’s using Maria to generate content for her own book. As soon as Maria yields something useful, Karen Grisham dismisses her.

The characters surrounding Maria are extensions of her own experiences as well as full-fleshed characters. Life coach Karen Grisham is a polished exploiter, a Hollywood lifestyle hanger-on, but she’s also the needling interior voice that haunts so many people. She’s the inner critic who matter-of-factly crushes hopes and corroborates anxieties. Mimicking the language of self-esteem literature, she tells Maria to work on herself—not because she’s worthy of self-love, but because no one else will love her. Her tone of upbeat certainty is especially cutting because it makes her pronouncements sound so reasonable, so real.

Dispirited by Karen Grisham’s enthusiastic undermining and fueled by the realization that her contacts list is “a minefield of shattered relationships,” Maria decides to repair those old friendships one at a time, starting with Jill Kwatney-Adelman (Oscar-nominated Bridesmaids screenwriter Annie Mumolo), now just Jill Kwatney.


Bamford’s reading of “I’m an old woman now… the singularity, I am fusing with all time and space!” is simultaneously deeply committed and deeply silly, the kind of thing that might tickle a close friend. (Reminder: As much as possible, I distinguish between Maria Bamford and Lady Dynamite’s fictionalized version of her by speaking of the performer as Bamford and the character as Maria.) But that elaborate staginess as she’s greeting an estranged friend does suggest that Maria’s… kind of a lot in person.


Mumolo plays Jill with brusque, pointed hostility. Her posture and her sharp gestures speak of a different kind of confidence than Karen Grisham’s, but it’s just as toxic. “You need to be the alpha, Maria!” she bawls, coaching Maria instead of coaching Bert. “He doesn’t know what he wants. You tell him what you want.” Jill Kwatney-Adelman (née Kwatley) lives her life by that motto: Be the alpha. What she wants is important; what Maria wants is immaterial. If Jill wants to fantasize about her husband’s co-worker, Maria should refuse to date him. If Jill can’t have a pretzel-bread sandwich, Maria can’t have it, either. Jill reads one article about depression (in Bark magazine) and thinks she knows better than Maria and the trained personnel of her in-patient facility.

Even when Jill pays lip-service to Maria’s agency, she’s taking it from her. “I don’t want to live anymore,” Maria tells Jill, who knows—but also knows Maria’s in intensive treatment to stave off suicidal impulses. After a dismissive cursory attempt to train Maria out of her almost affectless state, Jill sighs. “Okay, fine. If you don’t want to be happy, I will give you my permission to let go. ” If you don’t want to be happy: a damning implication that the draining depths of severe depression are a choice. I will give you my permission, as if Jill decides.


“You just say the word,” she goes on, “and I will leave you alone in here with Rusty,” who’s trained in euthanasia. Maria doesn’t say a word, but Jill leaves her with Rusty, who spends an hour trying to kill her. (Mumolo’s practiced “lights out” command is hilarious and chilling.) “Well, look at you, playing God!” Marilyn Bamford chirps upon learning Jill’s new dog is a clone of her former dog. Jill does like to wield authority, even over life and death.

(Annie Mumolo, Maria Bamford) (Photo: Netflix)

As discussed in the pilot, the Duluth scenes are bleak, dim, and chilly. They’re also starkly beautiful, never more so than in “No Friend Left Behind.” The rec room isn’t huge, but the staging—Marilyn’s seat set off from the main area and far from the rear wall, Maria so still in her wheelchair, the doorway and window opening out into barely brighter spaces—makes it feel both cavernous and claustrophobic.

A few points of light play across the scene, highlighting the pale crumples of Maria’s hospital gown, the wisps of hair floating around her slack face, the bones of her limp hands. When Jill looms over Maria, that same light illuminates her quick, decisive gestures, her commanding profile, the sweep of her cape. And its reflection flickers in Maria’s eyes, giving her impassive mien a poignant spark of life. The visuals of Lady Dynamite are as powerful, and as thoughtfully constructed, as any film’s.


If that description makes this episode sound joyless, it’s anything but. Mumolo, Slate, and Bamford all shine in this episode, but the star player in “No Friend Left Behind” is Bert. To be exact, it’s the dog who plays Bert. His gleeful romp around the corral is only part of his triumph. Bert’s screen presence (aided by smart editing choices and Bamford’s on-screen handling of him) is by turns exuberant, determined, peaceful, and just plain silly. The way his feet splay as she carries him, his snuffling little face, his gleaming eyes, his curve of a mouth, so easy to interpret as a smile: Bert’s a champion performer, and not just because he’s an unexpectedly gifted herder.


Throughout “No Friend Left Behind,” there’s a running mention of gifts and presents. Reconnecting with Jill over Bert’s knack for sheepherding, Maria says, “Today is such a gift!” Jill won’t let Maria forget she never gave her a wedding gift, and when she disavows their friendship, the absent gift is the excuse she gives her husband. Maria finally does deliver that wedding present, after their divorce. “It’s never too late for a present,” Jill says. But that’s not quite true, as she proves seconds later.

“The only thing I’m more allergic to than wheat is your gluten-covered bullshit!”

Her rage isn’t really about the gift, and it’s not really about the sandwich. The sandwich is just one more thing Jill wants for herself, can’t have, and doesn’t want anyone else to have. But it’s not really about the guy, either. It’s about Jill, who thinks because she can’t eat a sandwich for lunch, neither should her lunch date. Jill, who calls dibs on a crush as if he were a sandwich. Jill, who orders the death of a friend seeking treatment for suicidal ideation. Jill, who slaps a frightened dog.

Maria would never have braved Jill’s wrath for her own sake; she’d sit there with turkey and sprouts mashed onto her face, apologizing forever. But she won’t let Jill mistreat Bert. She knows Bert deserves better. Even so, she worries she’s sacrificed Bert’s gift to her relationship struggles. In fact, Bert (speaking once again in Kyle McCulloch’s voice of Werner Herzpug—or Werner Herzdog) has sacrificed himself for her, because Bert is a true friend and he knows Maria deserves better, too. Learning to distinguish true friends from false ones, or even from bad fits, and letting the false or ill-fitting ones go their own way, is the real gift in “No Friend Left Behind.” And it’s never too late to learn that.


Stray observations

  • “I think they probably wouldn’t say it to your face, but I think they’d say it to their real friends. I think that would be very funny for all of them.” The jauntiness of Karen Grisham’s remark is devastating.
  • “Your dog is fantastic, JK!” “What, are you kidding again?” “No, I just initialed my approval as a sign of sincerity.”
  • “Hmm, that sounded like it started as a true apology, but now I’m hearing excuses.” Mumolo kills it with every reading and gesture in this part, turning a role that could have been insufferably broad into something just exaggerated enough to be ridiculous while still feeling uneasily familiar.
  • There’s so much to write about in every episode, something’s got to give, so Maria’s manic past got short shrift here. But Dean Cain deserves a shout-out for his performance as Graham, who’s so smitten with Maria and so easy to please. “Isn’t she funny?” he asks a crew member as Maria’s humiliating Bruce, and when the crowd picks up the chant of “Boo-hoo-ruce,” Graham joins in with a smile.
  • Thank you, Lady Dynamite, for the parallel of Graham in his brace next to Maria in her Maria Bamford Pepper Stepper-Bot.
  • “This wrinkled, slobbering body is capable of many great things. I am a painter, philosopher, writer of poetry. But I desire to do none of these things. I choose to lie upon the hardwood floor, snoring my life away and occasionally shitting where I sleep.”
  • Maria compulsively shoving potato chips at her face is a gift in itself.

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