Thank you, Emily Nussbaum. The New Yorker's Pulitzer-winning columnist has opened my eyes once more. Her recent review of Lady Dynamite made me take another look at Maria Bamford's new series on Netflix and I am very happy that I did.
In truth, so many of the series that have come out of Netflix's new production wing have been woefully disappointing. I am still scratching my head over Grace & Frankie, a series that manages to be simultaneously embarrassing and still compulsively, horribly, watchable. It's a little like a traffic accident, with Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda, Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston rolling end-over-end until they end up in a tattered and bloody heap. Sometimes I hate-watch it, and wonder how much they paid people to make such a limp dishrag of a show. I really should stop doing this -- it can't be good for the soul.
Then, from the same Netflix, comes Ms. Bamford, and her fizzy and furious new series and everything is better for it being in the world.
Lady Dynamite takes its origins from a series of YouTube videos that the comedian made a few years ago, when a mental breakdown forced her to return home to Duluth, Minnesota to live with her parents. She explains it all in a catchy little theme song that goes something like this: "I was a marginally successful comedian living in Los Angeles, for 14 years, doing standup, but I never got my own sitcom, and my boyfriend turned out to be bisexual, and I forgot to pay my insurance premiums, and I couldn't afford my medication for OCD, depression and anxiety, so I started driving cross-country in a blonde wig and a bathing suit looking for angels with a drug dealer named Lips..."
It goes on, but the end result is that Maria ends up moving back in with her parents, stabilizes her meds, and slowly puts the pieces of herself back together -- a process that became The Maria Bamford Show. You can watch all twenty episodes here. Be warned, however, that once you start watching one episode you will need to bang through all 20. Doing so is a little like cramming in as many delicious spiky bonbons of comedic genius as one can handle without spontaneous combustion. When it was over, I wanted to watch it all over again to get the timing, all the jokes I missed in the first viewing, and to appreciate the glory of its homespun wonderment.
Inside Bamford's brain
The premise of Lady Dynamite, at least at the beginning, is the same as the considerably more lo-fi original, but the woman has upped her game to giddy new heights. Veritable sunflower explosions of colour, character and a pin-wheeling barrage of surrealist images pop off all around you, and the result is pure insane joy. Although to be fair, it is insane joy, mixed with despair, mental illness, and the occasional reference to killing one's entire family, chopping them up into bits, having sex with the bits and then eating the bits.
The show is set in three distinct time periods in Maria's life (pre-breakdown L.A., the depression of Duluth, and post-recovery L.A.) all of which are helpfully colour-coded. Each chapter is delineated by hue and tone that speaks to the underlying truth of time and place. Prior to Bamford's break, the acid-etched Hockney-esque colours of Los Angeles are super saturated, every hard blue sky shrieks with manic energy. Maria's pink and green outfits vibrate and strobe and her yellow hair is corkscrewed into tightly wound coils, like Nelly Olsen run amok. In this time zone, Maria is living the life of a semi-successful comedian, complete with a lucrative gig as a spokesperson for a mega-store named Checklist, an inept business manager, and a live-in boyfriend with a fading stunt career and three teenage boys.
Despite some money and a modicum of fame, our Maria is reduced to screaming into a loofah sponge in the shower on a fairly regular basis. When her big break comes, and I don't mean that in a good way, it starts with the realization that Checklist is evil, she doesn't really love her boyfriend, and she is no longer managing her bipolar II disorder and OCD. Her mental illness is now running the show, and the plot has taken a decidedly dark and terrible turn. When tragedy strikes, it comes from a most unexpected direction.
Fast-forward to Duluth (shot in tones of cool blue and grey) much like the colour of the walls in the psych ward, where Maria spends her days cutting out magazine pictures and playing emotional badminton. Her parents (played by Mary Kay Place and Ed Begley Jr.) do their best to cope, but they mostly seem bewildered.
In The Maria Bamford Show, all of the roles were played by Maria herself, with insanely wonderful results. They include: Her sister, perpetually chewing her nails to a bloody pulp. A high school mean girl, who now works at Target. And a lascivious preacher who spouts the gospel in orgasmic spurts. At times, it is hard to keep up with such a dizzying array of characters, but there is an electric core of truth that hardwires each of these people in all their sad, desperate and occasional heroic glory. One particular episode entitled "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" gets it so right it hurts. We are all frightened, fragile beings, riddled with insecurities and a deep and profound sadness, and that is okay. Or as the song goes: "Lions and war kill the kids in their beds... There's nothing to fear cuz we're all terrified."
Because life is weird
In the new series, each of the characters in Maria's head are brought to surging life by a cast that threatens to throw off the shackles of control and run away over the hills. The narrative teeters on the edge of chaos, but that only adds to the greatness. Her life coach, realtor and agent, each named Karen Grisham, are respectively played by Jenny Slate, June Diane Raphael, and Ana Gasteyer. Gasteyer is a particular standout as the agent from hell, with giant bedazzled sunglasses and a theme song that consists only of the phrase "Cradle the balls and work the shaft." Ms. Raphael, who is currently mired in a thankless role on Grace & Frankie, also gets license to bring her comedic powers to bear, as the world's most terrifying realtor, all shellacked pink lip gloss and an attention to home décor worthy of Ilsa, Shewolf of the SS.
The rest of the supporting players are equally strong. Another of Maria's agents is played by Bruce Ben-Bacharach as a sad sack of a man who stalks his ex-wife and her new Latin lover on a cruise ship stricken by Norwalk virus, and regularly books his client on the worst gigs imaginable. (A Japanese advertising campaign for something called Pussy Noodle is only one example.) Adding colour, depth and occasionally wild surprise are Maria's two dueling friends, an array of New Age therapists (often pronounced the-rapists), and finally the world's most unlikely love interest. Ólafur Darri Ólafsson plays Maria's would-be boyfriend. The man looks like the troll that lives under a bridge, but his velvet frog voice is all hot springs, massage oil and warm chocolate. The effect is like being rocked to sleep and read a fairytale while someone gently brushes your hair. One could drown in such a comforting rumble.
The show heaps one thing atop another -- pugs who talk like Werner Herzog, animated sperm, an homage to Power Rangers, a flying Mira Sorvino -- the list goes on. What comes out of this glorious spurting fire-hose of imagination is the power of the comedic mind to take horror and sadness, stick it in a blender, add kale, broccoli and protein powder and hit the whiz button until what comes out feels likes food for the soul.
Yes, indeed, I felt better for watching this show, not only because of its humour and courage, but also because at the very heart of the thing is something even stronger: plain hard truth.
Nothing feels better or more right than telling the truth and this is where the show cuts away from the pack of programs nowadays about white people in L.A. trying to figure out what to do with their lives (Love, Arrested Development, and the horror that is Grace & Frankie). Lady Dynamite leaves them all in the dust, as it makes its own weird way in the world, and says that it is okay to look at the darkness within, to talk about it, whether it is a compulsive need to people please, or unbidden thoughts about chopping your entire family into bits. Don't hide it, or mask it. Let it out in all its capering mad glory. Give it a catchy theme song!
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