Monday, May 23, 2016

TV That Doesn’t Suck: Lady Dynamite (Season 1) (2016)

One of the newest of Netflix’s latest series features Maria Bamford, stand-up comic, voice actor and occasional pitch-woman. She was the promotional face of Target stores a few years ago playing a caricatured manic shopper who gave the impression she might be committing horrible acts to herself and/or others if she didn’t have the distraction of buying things.

As viewers learn during the series, it’s not entirely an act. Bamford uses her very real struggles with depression and bipolar disorder in her semi-autobiographical performance as someone who is just trying to make it through life (get a job, get a boyfriend, etc.). Her condition was severe enough that she had to be institutionalized, a fact that forms a major story point in the series’ narrative.
The show takes place in three time frames: present-day, a couple of years prior when she was “on top,” and further back in the past where details about her family and upbringing shine a light on why she is who and where she is.

The overall theme of the show centers around the question (to borrow the title from another of Netlfix’s recent successes) “What Happened, Ms. Bamford?” Through the leaps in time, viewers learn that Bamford’s behavior (unlike many actors and comedians who go to Hollywood) is not due to some affectation or not having learned how not to be a twit. It’s the result of real trauma and abuse, heightened by the fact that she works in an industry where everyone lies all the time about everything.

The show is funny and poignant, with guest appearances by a number for familiar faces and solid supporting performances by actors like Ed Bagley Jr. as Bamford’s compassionate father and Ana Gasteyer as her brutally hilarious agent/not-agent. There's also plenty of food for thought about subjects like race, capitalism, and mental illness.

The first episodes of season one are brilliantly surreal as it rips out the pages of the Sitcom Production Playbook and makes paper airplanes out of them. Later episodes tend to conform more to standard sitcom beats and structure. What doesn’t change, though, is the sharp humor, often delivered most effectively in throwaway lines or asides, the subtle but ever-present visual and sound cues suggesting sex and violence, and the look of absolute terror in Bamford’s face, always sitting there right behind her eyes. There’s lots of laughs, but there’s also chaos and despair lurking right underneath. It’s a fearless, honest, and substantial kind of comedy that doesn’t come along often.

My Rating: 9/10 (“Loved It”)

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