We’re living in the golden age of sad comedies. As The Sopranos heralded a darker and more complex era for antiheroic dramas, Louie has done the same for auteur-driven sitcoms. Transparent, BoJack Horseman, Baskets, and the upcoming Tig Notaro series One Mississippi (the latter two executive-produced by Louis C.K.) have injected isolation, melancholy, and existential malaise into the half-hour comedy, stretching the genre so far its dimensions now hardly matter.
Its latest entrant is Netflix’s Lady Dynamite, a showcase for the performing talents and stand-up sensibility of cult comic Maria Bamford. The brilliant and bizarre broken bird of alt comedy, Bamford is the kind of entertainer who demands that you learn her rhythms -- which often involve hairpin swerves in tone and subject matter -- to get her jokes. The series offers no respite from such impositions: Its frantic, dense, and rambling pilot dares to be a test. Are you ready and willing to put in the work of following this show, with its dazed protagonist, its one-dimensional supporting characters, its three chronologies, its (deliberate?) cheap look, its recurring meta-commentary, and its niche obsession with mid-level comedy fame?
Get past that first half-hour, though, and Lady Dynamite relaxes into a more or less recognizable sitcom format, with Bamford’s bipolar character -- a heavily autobiographical version of the comedian -- trying to get her career and her social life back on track after a six-month stay at a psychiatric institution in her hometown of Duluth, Minnesota. The fictional Maria seeks to trust herself again and allow that tiny bud of self-esteem within her to bloom while engaging in that most confidence-killing of all activities: dating. Each episode ends with a faux-cheery jingle: “I don’t know what I’m doing more than half of the time.”
As Maria recovers in the present day, extended flashbacks reveal how she spiraled into her depressive state after a series of faulty but understandable decisions, as well as how miserable her time in Duluth with her parents (Mary Kay Place and Ed Begley Jr.) turned out to be. That novel structure, in which time moves forward as it simultaneously moves backward, is key to the show’s mission to portray mental illness honestly -- as a condition, not a phase. Most admirably, Bamford and creators Pam Brady (South Park) and Mitchell Hurwitz (Arrested Development) keenly dramatize how isolating mental illness can be because of any number of factors: anxiety and shame resulting from the disease, misunderstanding or romanticizing the symptoms, even self-destructive self-absorption on the part of the sufferer. When Maria dumps a promising guy (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson) who likes her and, more crucially, is prepared to deal with all of her neuroses, her decision to bolt makes total sense in the moment -- even if it’s also glaringly, heartbreakingly wrong.
If Lady Dynamite’s bold candor about mental illness distinguishes it among the sad comedies on the air, its other elements are more idiosyncratically haphazard in their content and effectiveness. The show borrows Bamford’s knack for piercing satire, especially of cheerful femininity and faux-empowered consumerist womanhood, thus paving the way for a model of feminism for shy, socially awkward women. But the cutaway gags -- of a cartoon Ben Franklin swishing his penis around, her Werner Herzog–like talking pug, the deranged faux-Target commercials (Bamford starred in a real-life marketing campaign for the superstore some years ago), and the Power Rangers–derived battle in the season finale -- are hit-or-miss, often a display of weirdness for its own sake. Meanwhile, the series’s showbiz satire, in which Fred Melamed plays Maria’s manager, offers little insight and works best in its most outlandish modes, like when t-shirts bearing Maria’s name and face accidentally end up uniforming a squad of South Sudanese child soldiers.
Lady Dynamite’s influences are obvious: It borrows its breakneck pace from Arrested Development, its mental-health concerns and abrupt departures to surreality from Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and -- as much as both Maria Bamfords would hate to admit it -- it borrows its chirpy, single-gal-narrating-her-dating-travails structure from Sex and the City. (Bridget Everett and Lennon Parham, playing Maria’s not-the-best friends, are two of the approximately 500 recognizable comedians in cameos.) But Bamford, Brady, and Hurwitz have created something that feels new and important -- another often hidden or ignored slice of life that can finally be explored in this new niche-ified television landscape.
I feel a little strange endorsing a comedy that didn’t make me LOL once, though there were plenty of times in each episode when I appreciated the cleverness or the craftsmanship of a gag. But that’s an increasingly common experience in this era of the sad comedy, when humor seldom leads to laughter, connections are forged through alienation, and pleasure is shared misery. We are all comedians now.