Lady Dynamite Recap: Touch the Children

Maria Bamford as Maria. Netflix
Lady Dynamite
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Editor’s Rating

Maria is at it again with the racial stereotypes, apparently not having learned much from John Ridley on the White Trash set. It's the second time Lady Dynamite has run a cheeky race-centric episode, and the second time the focus has been not on characters of color. Instead, "Josue" sticks with Maria's overwhelming white guilt, obliviousness, and desire to help people who don't need her help. This episode gives us a particularly good look into Maria's insecurity and fear, but it doesn't offer anything about race and TV that "White Trash" didn't already cover.

Maria runs into a boy named Josue (Gilberto Ortiz) who got caught graffiting a parking lot outside Bruce's office. That's all she needs to see to jump in and "save" him. Josue immediately recognizes her kind: "You're the white lady that wants to help the brown kid in the barrio."

Instead of accepting patronizing help he doesn't need, Josue flips the tables by agreeing to help Maria with something. She's short on cash to fork over for Bruce's Touch the Children event to benefit orphans, and she grudgingly agreed to perform a stand-up set in lieu of a donation. The only minor problem is that, as Maria proved in "Loaf Coach," she has absolutely no idea how to relate to children.

While in the studio recording her voice-over work for Foxcatcher Babies, Maria and her new sidekick run into Bruce and his orphan intern, Jalen (Carlos Luna). The second the adults step away, Jalen says in Spanish that Maria is crazy and asks if Josue is going to sleep with her. Josue's response? "No Jalen, Maria's a really terrific woman who's done a lot of work on herself. I think we stigmatize mental illness in this country. And that's not cool." Even delivered by the emotionally mature Josue, the line is deliberately unrealistic, meant to poke fun at how relentlessly and unabashedly Lady Dynamite hits on that exact message across three timelines.

Maria's initial impulse to save Josue is, unsurprisingly, not the first time she's had a condescending attitude toward Latino people. Back when Maria was shooting Checklist commercials and feeling guilty about selling out, she wanted to find a way to use her role at the evil megacorporation for good. She heads down to Mexico (or as Maria says it, "Meh-jee-coh") to volunteer at a training school for the company's new employees. She conducts all of her lessons in character as the outrageous Checklist customer.

The training is designed to get employees to fall in line on the job, rather than question their bosses about basic workplace necessities like adequate safety standards and fair pay. The school even has a creepy mascot named Trabajito (voiced delightfully by Bamford), who urges students to stop speaking English and quit standing up for themselves. It's very Big Brother, if Big Brother were a sombrero-wearing frog.

Two men in Maria's class aren't buying into her Checklist fantasy-land. Instead, after one of their brothers died on the factory floor, they're plotting to form an employee union. Maria finds their Spanish-language pamphlets and rips them up, because "nothing tastes as good as speaking English feels." On Checklist graduation day, we see employees laboring under sweatshop conditions to sew caps and gowns as Maria, oblivious as usual, is pleased with herself for a job well done. "You're welcome, Mexico," she says, leaving her dictatorial classroom for the last time.

Maria doesn't feel quite as confident in the Duluth flashback, when she's shooting a commercial for the local maritime museum. She's doing an excellent job, as far as kitschy, low-budget commercials are concerned, but Susan, the director, boots Maria and takes over the starring role for herself. Consider it revenge for Maria spending time drawing with Susan's husband, Paul.

Susan isn't cutting it as an actor, so the director of photographer stages a mutiny. One by one, the entire crew joins in — except for Maria. She voices her support for Susan even after she tanks the entire commercial, solely because she's afraid to stand up to her bossy childhood friend.

In the present, Maria harbors a different fear: bombing her benefit act in front of the Touch the Children kids. Josue informs Maria that her stand-up just isn't funny, and that she's bound to get booed unless she makes a drastic change. He suggests stealing from a comedian that actually knows how to make kids laugh. That'd be Gordo Gonzalez, the comic who graces an Entertainment Bi-Monthly cover with the headline "Fart, Pray, Love."

Despite her better judgment, Maria studies Gordo's act and fashions a knockoff of his profane puppet sidekick, Farty Pantalones. Moments before she's about to go onstage at the benefit, however, Maria learns Gordo is set to perform right after her. Nervous and stuttering, Maria pushes ahead with Gordo's material. The crowd can't get enough of it, but she is visibly uncomfortable stealing jokes from a fellow comedian. Not far into the set, Maria ditches the puppet, announces that she won't abandon her principles, and launches into her own, decidedly different act. Her bit about suicide is a strong part of Bamford's real-life act (as seen in the video below), but as expected, a dry joke that starts with "Is anyone thinking of suicide?" doesn't go over well with young kids.

So Maria bombs, but at least she stays true to herself, faces her fear, and realizes that an awful performance won't kill her. Josue's family won't let him keeping hanging out with Maria, fearing that she wants their relationship to be sexual, but before the two break things off for good, he hands Maria $50,000 from his weed business. It's enough to cover her mounting expenses from the Touch the Children benefit, along with all of the checks that Bruce mysteriously hasn't passed along to her.

Like "White Trash" before it, "Josue" shows that Lady Dynamite isn't only hyperaware of tired sitcom jokes about race, but also totally game to subvert them. That's not a bad thing, but repeatedly stereotyping minority groups, even when it's done as tongue-in-cheek commentary on the TV industry, still wears thin because it's not coupled with the inclusion of enough characters of color in story lines that aren't directly (or even indirectly) tied to race. Seven episodes into its first season, the recurring characters of Lady Dynamite are almost exclusively white. That's a missed opportunity for a show that draws so much of its strength from an eclectic mix of comedians. Let's hope it improves on that front soon.