In her new Netflix sitcom, Maria Bamford doesn’t break the fourth wall so much as she bulldozes it to pieces. Much like her stand-up comedy, Lady Dynamite focuses on Bamford’s real-life experiences navigating personal and professional relationships with mental illness. She has a rare knack for playing up the laugh-out-loud absurdities of this surreal premise, all without ignoring the struggles she’s depicting. Equally important is the sly way the show calls out misguided impressions (well-intended or otherwise) about obsessive-compulsive disorder, hypomania, depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts.
Our introduction to Lady Dynamite comes in the form of a frenzied, over-the-top hair-care commercial, in which Maria steals an injured cyclist’s wheels, nearly runs down a pedestrian while driving a convertible, and fondles an eggplant before realizing — oh right, it’s all just in her head. There is no commercial. She’s supposed to be shooting her sitcom. Things don’t get any less absurd or unapologetically meta from there, so buckle up.
Lady Dynamite is ostensibly the sitcom Maria is filming, though it frequently bleeds into a behind-the-scenes making of that sitcom. Her show-within-the-show bounces among three distinct time periods to tell the quasi-autobiographical story of Maria’s big break in Hollywood, subsequent stints in a psychiatric hospital, and present-day attempts to rebuild a career.
Soon after the Latrisse DuVois Hair Care (by Gary!) fantasy, the pilot settles into a somewhat more recognizable rhythm. We follow Maria as she meets with her bumbling manager, Bruce (Fred Melamed), who seems as eager for her to take on new projects as she isn’t. Ultimately, the two agree that her next move shouldn’t be a movie or a world tour, but something totally unique: Maria will install a community park bench, a goal perfectly in line with the vision boards she crafted while she was hospitalized.
Maria is stoked to see her new bench, which is not, as her friend Dagmar (Bridget Everett) eloquently suggests, a “fuck bench.” Her neighbors are decidedly less stoked about this endeavor, one by one slamming the door in her face when she invites them to give the bench a try. Amid these rejections, her other friend, Larissa (Lennon Parham), valiantly offers to work as her assistant — paid, of course. It’s totally normal to ask for six weeks off in the summer (plus every Wednesday) when you get yourself hired for a $35-an-hour gig, right?
Maria’s bench project quickly hits a snag: She doesn’t have a permit. This bureaucratic obstacle is delivered by Patton Oswalt, playing a rent-a-cop named L’Amour. His real role, however, is swiftly established as Maria’s sitcom mentor. Flustered and breaking character, Oswalt begs her not to incorporate her stand-up act into the show, arguing that the trend is over thanks to everything from Louie to Seinfeld.
“Give your audience some credit, okay?” he says. “They can deal with form-busting narrative innovations. We’ve all seen Breaking Bad.” Well, everyone except for Maria.
After a word from Patton about non-jarring time jumps, we cut recklessly to the past, where, in an impressively bizarre nod to Breaking Bad, Maria lifts a child’s ragged pink teddy bear out of a fountain. The reference is an in-your-face warning: This show won’t merely cater to TV nerds. It’s totally made for them. If 30 Rock’s premise seemed insider-y, Lady Dynamite burrows even deeper by dismantling the sitcom format itself through aggressive exaggeration.
Much of that exaggeration is delightfully embodied by Ana Gasteyer, who plays an overzealous super-agent named Karen Grisham. Karen doesn’t eat during their lunch meeting with Maria, but she does spend a lot of time forcing an inside joke into existence. She claims to not want Maria as a client on the “Grish List,” yet gifts her newfound bestie a Vespa before pushing her aside to second-lunch with Jon Cryer, another entry in Lady Dynamite’s almost exhausting wave of guest stars. John Mulaney pops up later, in colonial garb.
Soon after, Bruce urges Maria to sign with Karen, going so far as to willingly offer himself up as chum to lure her in. He even soldered a second sidecar onto Maria’s Vespa, which he christens the “Chum Bucket.” He’s no handyman, though: Bruce and his Bucket split from the Vespa after a sharp turn, and in explosive fashion, dive through the storefront window of Beverly Hills Whale Oil. (First barrel free!) At least we know he lives.
Back in the present day, Maria is floating through a water-polo game when Sugar Ray’s Mark McGrath shows up poolside. The two have some unspecified beef — hopefully, one that will be revealed in a coming episode — so Bruce wants to clear the air by having Maria perform at a block party to benefit McGrath’s charity, Open Arms.
Maria feels good about the benefit, which she assumes will aid children and hugging, until Dagmar breaks the bad news: McGrath is actually advocating for looser open-carry gun laws. Moments later, Patton reappears under the guise of L’Amour. He’s supposedly threatening to issue a bench warrant, but really just wants to criticize the benefit’s clichéd brick-wall backdrop, perhaps the most tired of all stand-up tropes. The wall will have to wait, however, as Lady Dynamite flashes back to its third timeline. We jump to a psychiatric ward in Duluth, Minnesota — and at Patton’s suggestion, these scenes are easily distinguished from their present-day counterparts with light-blue saturation.
After Maria heads to her parents’ house after the hospital sessions, her childhood friend Susan (Mo Collins) immediately confronts her with a barrage of insults about her mental illness. (I particularly enjoyed “mental veg on rye” and “Sylvia Plath Jr.”) The scene serves to underscore an early strength: What would be risky territory for most comedians is, coming from Bamford, funny and warm and clearly anti-stigma. This is, after all, the woman who made audiences laugh by singing to Stephen Colbert about obsessive-compulsive disorder. Behind its flashy goofs, Lady Dynamite finds creative ways to depict what mental illness can feel like on a day-to-day basis. When Maria is overwhelmed, for instance, she surrealistically and spontaneously transforms into a sheep. In a pithy barb, Susan condenses everything down to a disarming truth: “All the fame and fortune of Hollywood can’t save ya if your brain done broke.”
Neither can pro-gun rallies. At the neighborhood benefit, Bruce shares a word from a gun-manufacturer sponsor: “Let’s do something about mental illness.” It’s a cheeky joke that conveys the fact that people with mental illnesses aren’t disproportionately responsible for gun violence, despite what headlines may suggest after mass shootings.
Uncomfortable with the shots literally being fired around her, Maria bombs during her set. She hands the mic to Oswalt, who tidies up this unwieldy pilot, leading Maria to celebrate her show’s discovery of its own voice. “It’s Patton’s voice, but he is very good,” she quickly clarifies. Oswalt succeeds in setting the ground rules for her sitcom, but it remains to be seen if Lady Dynamite can harness its surreal energy to create something beyond this giant meta in-joke. Or if it even wants to.