Absurdist humor is hard to make funny. Absurdist humor about mental health and a complete emotional, mental, and physical breakdown resulting in several suicide attempts, depression, and hospitalization? Even harder. It shouldn’t work, but somehow, in the capable hands of creator and star Maria Bamford, it does, and with charm and positivity to boot.
The plot of Lady Dynamite‘s first season takes direct inspiration from Bamford’s personal life. Over the course of three separate timelines, we see Bamford’s rise to fame, her breakdown and recovery, as well as her return to Los Angeles, as she attempts to put the pieces back together of her fractured life, her ruined relationships, while attempting to keep her sanity and emotional wellbeing intact.
“My contact list is a minefield of shattered relationships.” – Maria
The portions that take place in Duluth where Maria is dealing with her depression, bipolar II diagnosis, and coping with her suicidal thoughts are marked by a blue filter, making it clear what period is being showcased. The manic Maria, pre-diagnosis, is saturated in color and over the top, much like her overly curly hair, alerting us of the impeding breakdown. A softer hue is used for on-the-mend Maria, further enlightened by her more subdued hairstyle, showing us a healthier version of herself, even though she now is much more cautious and full of trepidation.
Bamford has a penchant for the nonsensical and crazy (animals, especially her beloved pugs, talk), she isn’t afraid of showcasing the ridiculous and the unstable aspects of her personality, and the show works because of this extremely personal and vulnerable fearlessness. She is also a very well-meaning person who fails all the time, often with the best of intentions but in wholly unexpected ways. She is naive, so when she commits errors in her approach to discussions based on race, immigration, gender, or any other topic, she continuously fails or trips, but she does so in ways that keep her sympathetic and make us root for her to do better next time. Every single episode, in fact, ends with a chorus singing: “I don’t know what I’m doing more than half of the time.” If that isn’t relatable, then what is?
The show is also very, very funny. Here is an example of Maria’s deadpan humor that brought me to tears from laughing:
“I had to cancel my date, because as much fun as it sounds to date a bisexual meth-head, I just wasn’t ready for it.” – Maria
She doesn’t take herself, or her issues, too seriously and asks us not to either, and it works. She is also supported by a strong cast, and a very good usage of guest stars. Popping up as Maria’s mom is Mary Kay Place, who seems to be everywhere these days, and her sympathetic dad is played by Ed Begley Jr. and together they make the darkest of storylines quite funny and enjoyable. Ana Gasteyer (SNL) plays Maria’s potty mouthed Hollywood agent named Karen Grisham. Also named Karen Grisham? Maria’s realtor (Grace and Frankie‘s June Diane Raphael) and her life coach (Parks and Recreations‘ Jenny Slate). Why do they all share a name? Are they all the same person? Are they made up by Maria’s troubled and fragile mind? We never find out. Many others pop in and out of the picture and bring their own bit of crazy, zany, funny, or fourth-wall breaking brilliance to the show.
I never thought it could be possible but Bamford makes something that is inherently unfunny quite hilarious, and does so with pathos and remains likable even when her actions are decidedly not so. I loved the show and hope Netflix brings us more of it soon.