The not-so-glamorous side of Hollywood has been explored before, but the surrealism Maria Bamford uses while relaying her own life in the entertainment industry in her new comedy “Lady Dynamite” is innovative.
“Lady Dynamite” begins with Bamford (“BoJack Horseman”) expressing enthusiasm to live in what’s revealed to be a dated hair commercial she is recalling. After her reverie is brought to an end, she speaks directly to the audience as she orients herself for her new TV show. This bold breaking of the fourth wall is a recurring theme throughout the show that somehow creates a light-hearted tone instead of being condescending or grating. The show centers on her, as a comedian and actress, trying to regain a hold of her professional career after spending time in a psychiatric hospital receiving treatment for bipolar disorder. The flashbacks are effortlessly worked in as the first episode’s present story unfolds. The filters and coloring of the scenes make it easy to follow along with Bamford’s otherwise disjointed narrative, a fact Bamford amusingly brings to our attention herself. After being released from the institution, she is welcomed by her vaguely Jewish manager Bruce Ben-Bacharach, played caringly by Fred Melamed (“Hail Caesar!”) to guide her career’s next step after recovery.
Instead of having big dreams to land another movie, comedy or TV gig (wink wink), she shares she has been pining to have a communal bench in front of her house to bring the neighborhood together. Her unexplained optimism and kindness seem unreasonable after being treated harshly at the mental care facility and after being lured in by an A-list agent only to be decidedly blown off. Yet, Bamford’s conviction in-character makes her fictional self a convincingly sympathetic heroine. With the help of her genuinely funny friends Dagmar (Bridget Everett, “Girls”) and Larissa (Lennon Parham, “Veep”), she embarks on a mission to make Bamford’s bench a community hotspot among her neighbors. In the process, Bamford patches up work relations with guest star Mark McGrath of Sugar Ray fame. The unusual choice of McGrath to play a central role in a comedy only strengthens the comedic tone of the show. His meme-worthy public persona was not lost on the writers of “Lady Dynamite,” who managed to make his appearance substantive while evoking his humorous attempts to keep his presence in the media. This put Bamford’s struggle to stay in the limelight into perspective in the funniest way possible.
The complex role played masterfully by comedian Patton Oswalt (“Ratatouille”) highlights how the show manages to break the fourth wall while being taken seriously. The policeman played by Oswalt threatens to take away fictional Bamford’s bench for not having a license, proving a palpable threat to her mission and fueling the show’s plot. But he also breaks character, complete with a green screen shown behind him as the show’s crew tries to adjust, as he warns Bamford she can’t be taken seriously as a fellow comedian if she dedicates her comedy career to television. “Lady Dynamite” is aware of not only its aim to give an inside look into fame, but also of the implications this has on Bamford’s real-life career, adding gravity to the show’s subject matter.
The show is frankly irreverent, but that’s what makes it so humorous to watch. The way Bamford and her manager are replaced by actual sheep when they are bending to the hotshot agent or Mark McGrath’s wishes to boost the comedian’s career is deliciously explicit satire. The way Bamford acknowledges the features that make the show work, from the transitions in the writing to the comedians in the program, make her story feel all the more real in spite of pointing out the television magic it is presented with.
Knowing that Bamford’s stand-up comedy focuses on her experiences as a woman with bipolar disorder, it’s no surprise women and mental health are key themes here. Finding humor while giving mental illness the serious portrayal it deserves is laudable. But she doesn’t stop with sharing what might make her “different,” and that’s what makes the show so special. All you need to know before you watch it is that this is Bamford’s story, told her way — and she is dynamite.