“You could do that, I mean, there’s no way you couldn’t not do that,” Maria rambles to Graham halfway through “A Vaginismus Miracle.” This advice comes just after she cheerfully punches him in the face and just before she frantically tidies up, stacking still-lit candles on top of still-full dinner plates and swabbing down everything with antibacterial wipes. Maria’s Hollywood past timeline has been exciting, even frenzied, but now she’s well into her first manic episode. This episode (of TV, not of bipolar mania) is a shining example of Lady Dynamite’s mastery of tone.
It’s hard to create comedy from mental illness without lapsing into laughing at mental illness. Maria Bamford’s show explores her own history, and that’s part of what makes it so relatable and real, even in its surreality. The deft writing gives it a smart, layered construction and expands the fictionalized narrative so it’s fresh, even for those familiar with her body of work and her persona. Best of all, the writers don’t shy away from the pain inherent in these experiences, even while they’re creating hilarious moments from them. “A Vaginismus Miracle” had me sighing as much as I was laughing, and often as I was laughing.
Maria’s in a tight spot, in more ways than one. Vaginismus seems to come earlier every year. Vaginismus isn’t, as Larissa thinks, a Greek harvest festival; it’s the day Maria sets aside to have her mandatory annual sexual intercourse. And of course it seems to come earlier, at least this year. Larissa continually screws up Maria’s schedule, making her late for appointments, sending her to the wrong audition, getting dates wrong for weddings and neighborhood parties and—oh, no!—for Vaginismus!
Putting Maria under pressure is dramatically expedient and very funny, but it also makes room for Maria to be the bad guy, even in her better-adjusted present. Sometimes her misdeeds are simple mistakes, like when she slips and sprays her hot coffee all over the Fox studio gate booth, shocking security guard Richard (James Black). But sometimes it’s a choice she’s making. She lets Karen Grisham bully her into firing Bruce by voicemail without warning. She pressures Richard for sex, tells him how he should feel about it, and finally blurts, “Richard, it is not about you!” She uses a party guest for her Vaginismus tryst (happily, with no pressure or pushing on either side) and expects to dismiss him by rolling over.
Speaking of rolling over, poor Graham! At the peak of her mania, Maria’s zest for life makes her blithely destructive of herself and others. (In the background of Maria and Graham’s dinner scene, a huge stack of delivered packages goes unmentioned. Presumably, they’re all impulse buys like the three Zwim Gyms she’s just ordered, and another sign of Maria’s loss of control.) And present-day Maria, for all her compassion and care, can be thoughtless. But the most villainous character in “A Vaginismus Miracle” isn’t Maria, or Larissa, or even Karen Grisham. It’s Kirsten Rydholm Rydholm (Melanie Hutsell), Maria’s junior-high bully. She’s preemptively hostile, resentful, dismissive, crass, and openly anti-Semitic. She harps on Maria’s old humiliations and relives them on Facebook. She’s hypocritical, telling Maria matter-of-factly that, sure, she’s been cruel to her for years, “but I like you better now that you’re rich.”
Its unexpected hero is Scott (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson), the electrician and Vaginismus miracle personified. In her outburst to Frank, the bartender who’s tended her on previous Vaginismuses, Maria concludes, “I don’t have to open up my painful rock box, okay? I can open up my feelings box!” Scott fiddles around with Maria’s blown fusebox (yeah, he does), and when they wake up together the next morning, she finds she’s opened both to him.
Healthier Maria isn’t flawless Maria, but she’s learning. She’s trying, sometimes failing, and trying again. And because she’s plumbed the depths of her own frailty and flaws, she can be understanding of others’ foibles. One of my favorite small moments in “A Vaginismus Miracle” is Maria turning down Frank, only to see he’s already moved on to another woman. (It’s perfect that she launches into her Empire monologue.) Maria isn’t bitter. “Good for you, Frank. Celebrate the body,” she whispers, then yells. “Celebrate the body!”
With a show as rich and dense as Lady Dynamite, no single review can reasonably condense all the action or jokes of a given episode, much less all the undercurrents. The show’s three distinct timelines weave into a unified story, overflowing with background details, and other characters’ experiences are often metaphors for Maria’s. If mania is fireworks nipples (“pew, pew, pew!”) and getting blindsided by a bus on a fifty-mile run, depression is a poop cruise; good health is finding the balance between the two. Lady Dynamite is the story of a person finding her balance—with her mental health, in her career, in her romantic life, and in life in general. It isn’t the story of a person achieving perfection, because none of us ever do. Balance is all about learning to open your feelings box, and not being afraid to flip a few switches to get the lights on.
- Today in Lady Dynamite signage: The Tight Spot is an appropriate name for Maria’s annual Vaginismus observances, but the kerning is a masterpiece.
- Chantrelle (Yimmy Yim) scooching her desk chair out of frame while making deadpan eye contact with Bruce is a beautiful piece of tension.
- “You think you’re the only white woman that’s ever thrown a hot cup of coffee at me? Let’s just say there’s a new girl on the lot. Infer from that what you want.” Oh, Richard, we lost you too soon.
- Dr. Achter is another of Andy Daly’s brilliantly understated functionaries.
- “That is so Nibbles.” Casting directors, take note: Karen McClain nails it as the casting director.
- “It’s a holodeck. You’re not pregnant, are you? Well, if you were, you aren’t anymore. You’re welcome. Or whatever, my ap—condolences.”
- Richard tells Maria, “In college, I was real husky. They used to call me Fat Dick.” When she commiserates that it “must have hurt,” he sighs, “You have no idea.” I fully expected Richard’s college nickname to pay off in a joke, but, uh, no. What kind of joke? You watched the episode. You know what kind of joke. Like Arrested Development, Lady Dynamite loves to lace the dialogue with possibilities, even if they don’t culminate in action.