‘Lady Dynamite’: Deconstructing Comedy Intelligently

·Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment
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In Lady Dynamite, now streaming on Netflix, Maria Bamford has created a candy-colored fantasy version of Los Angeles show business, portraying a variation on herself as “a 45-year-old woman who’s clearly sun-damaged.” At once anxious, eager to please, and trying hard to be “less ambitious,” this onscreen Bamford makes the rounds of auditions, does commercials and voice-over work, goes on dates that prove to be more trouble than they’re worth, and interacts with a variety of guest stars ranging from Sarah Silverman to Judd Apatow.

The description above barely hints at how assiduously wacky, self-referential, and complex Lady Dynamite is. There are flashback sequences shot in a blue hue in which Maria is home in Duluth with her parents, played by Ed Begley Jr. and Mary Kay Place, recovering from some sort of breakdown — her father describes it this way: “Her frontal lobe went on the fritz.” You’re supposed to think that one reason Lady Dynamite is so disjointed — jumping around in time, full of non sequiturs that substitute for jokes — is Maria’s precarious mental state, which is referred to, in various episodes, as “a lotta mental illness,” “clinically depressed,” and “bipolar mania.”

Bamford has referred in her stand-up act and in interviews to her real-life bipolar diagnosis, which could make for some uncomfortable viewing. You’re supposed to be so in on her joke that you find onscreen Maria’s scattered thoughts funny, not poignant. I didn’t laugh very frequently watching Lady Dynamite, but I was never less than absorbed by it. Written and directed by a variety of people (the first episode by Arrested Development creator and Lady Dynamite co-producer Mitch Hurwitz), this show is unified by Bamford’s energetic pursuit of happiness and is therefore sometimes quite moving. It’s the work of a very intelligent person who seems to think she should never go for anything so conventional as a straight-up joke and therefore constantly subverts the humor. Lady Dynamite can be, as a result, somewhat exhausting to watch, even a half-hour at a time — each episode is densely packed with twists and allusions to other bits of culture — but it’s certainly a work of great inventive power.

Lady Dynamite is streaming now on Netflix.