Just three episodes in, Lady Dynamite drops an episode about race. “White Trash” doesn’t attempt to impart some serious public statement in an overly precious half-hour, but instead, it thoroughly roasts the sitcoms that do. The episode focuses squarely on Maria’s white guilt, and the anxiety that fuels it.
“White Trash” starts with Maria bumping into Shane’s ex, Gabriel, again and again. He’s the guy delivering her pizza, driving her Uber, treating her pugs at the vet. By the time she runs into him taking a dip at the community pool, she’s frazzled and wants to know what’s going on. “What’s the matter? A black man can’t be in the pool?” Gabriel yells, messing with her. “Wanna call the mayor and have him drain it?”
That one joke is all it takes to send Maria panicking that she’s unintentionally super-racist. Looking to surround herself with more diverse voices, she signs on to a sitcom called White Trash, which stars Keith and Kenny Lucas. Like all of Bruce’s ideas, this will surely end well.
Before filming the pilot, Maria heads to a meeting of L.A. Pure — that’s People United for Racial Equality — a support group Bruce found on Ask Jeeves that’s about as counterintuitive and troublesome as its name suggests. Maria tells the group, which is exclusively made up of white people, that she’s afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing around people of color.
The group’s ringleader, Sheri (Deborah Theaker), chastises her for referring to the black characters on White Trash as “garbage men,” even though that is their literal occupation. The verdict? “If you’re white, keep it light,” meaning that Maria should only have surface-level conversations with people of color. In case it’s not already clear who we’re dealing with, Sheri also casually describes slavery as “our nation’s ultimate shenanigan.”
This apparently isn’t the first time Maria has attended a hilariously unhelpful support group. We flash back to her earlier days, as she excitedly tells a mopey, uninterested meeting of Debtors Anonymous — featuring Sheri (now Cherié) as a dead ringer for Rachel Dolezal — that Karen has landed her a commercial for Checklist. Thanks to this new gig, she’ll be able to pay off her debt. If this story sounds familiar, it’s because in 2010, Bamford did a real-life commercial series for Target using the same over-the-top style she cribs from the support group.
Bruce worries that the commercial will be too much for Checklist, but when he and Maria stop by Karen’s office to soften the blow, she lets them know it was a huge success. Checklist wants to pay her $150,000 for the ad campaign. To celebrate, Karen leads them in singing, “Cradle the balls and work the shaft!” a riff on an urban legend often attributed to Sylvester Stallone.
Maria knows exactly what she’s done. By taping a hit commercial, as she later tells a stand-up crowd, “I am a radical, militant, Green Party socialist — and a hypocrite, as it turns out.” (Yes, Patton Oswalt, there’s a stand-up scene.) It’s a quick shot of Bamford’s signature style, complete with awkward silences she mines for humor.
Going forward, Maria vows to think more about the messages she promotes through the work she takes on — like White Trash. On set, the Lucas brothers play garbage men, while Maria plays a Russian immigrant who assists a homeowner named Mrs. White (Mira Sorvino as Jennipher Nickles).
Concerned the show is racist, Maria airs out her guilt with Jennipher. Jennipher suggests the logical option of asking Kenny and Keith how they feel, but Maria, remembering Sheri’s advice to avoid serious discussions with black people at all costs, decides not to do so.
In Duluth, we see Maria staring into space at the kitchen table in total silence. Her mother, whom Mary Kay Place has played almost as well as Bamford herself does, is upset with her husband for avoiding their daughter, his “one and only loin fruit.” Instead, Joel passes the time by working with a teenage cobbling apprentice, Jeremy, while Maria recovers at home.
Jeremy, to be clear, is the worst. He curses out Joel, which is also his parents’ reaction to being told about their son’s behavior is also the worst. They berate Maria, calling her a “cuckoo retard.” After making some ableist comments to Jeremy’s parents, who both use wheelchairs, Joel heads home and apologizes to Maria for distancing himself. Not only is he a giant sellout, but he also “lost track of what I’ve always loved about cobbling, which is everything.” Classic dad quote.
Applying her dad’s lesson to her White Trash dilemma, Maria gets the premise of the sitcom drastically changed. In this new version, she and Jennipher are horny, scantily clad garbage women who encourage the Lucas brothers to unload into their receptacles, if you catch their drift.
Keith and Kenny are none too thrilled with Maria’s changes, which minimize their roles and characters. “We don’t want to represent anything,” they say. “We’re comedians, we just want to be funny.” The sitcom gets picked up for 13 episodes, but Maria ultimately shuts it down by quitting. (“I can’t look sexy on the back of a trash truck if it means selling out people I respect.”) She’s pleased with herself, of course, even after the Lucas brothers question the story line’s lack of any coherent solution. (12 Years a Slave screenwriter John Ridley also stops by, calling the episode “recklessly ignorant.”) Gabriel isn’t happy, either. As he asks Maria, why was he was introduced at the beginning of the episode only to vanish so quickly?
“We did it!” Maria says, still pleased with herself. “We told a story about very sensitive racial issues in America!” She most certainly did not, but Bamford does succeed in highlighting the absurdity, ignorance, and faulty logic that often drives white guilt. It’s an approach totally in line with Lady Dynamite’s irreverence toward both Hollywood and sitcom conventions.
“White Trash” isn’t the series’ strongest episode to date, mostly because the premise requires it to hit this single topic unreasonably hard for 27 minutes. Lady Dynamite seems to thrive when it has more room to bounce from joke to joke and topic to topic, catching viewers off-guard with its boundless energy. And with that, Mira Sorvina flies off in her rocket-powered Mini Cooper.