Not long into the first episode of Lady Dynamite, the semi-autobiographical Maria Bamford comedy series that debuts on Netflix today, Patton Oswalt breaks out of character as a cop to warn Bamford against doing actual standup in her show.
“It’s been done so many times before,” says Oswalt. “Give your audience some credit. They can deal with busting narrative innovations. We’ve all seen Breaking Bad.”
“Well… I haven’t,” Bamford sheepishly replies.
It’s just part of a steady stream of meta-commentary that frames up the premiere; the episode is a blend of self-awareness and absurdity, set at an antic pace. One minute, Bamford has turned into an actual sheep; the next, she’s gifted a Vespa with a sidecar. Before long, a second sidecar has been added, and almost immediately goes flying into a corner Whale Oil store, where it explodes.
That it all still flows and keeps you invested is a testament not just to Bamford’s performance, which is excellent and grounded amid the chaos, but to the show’s intentions. It breaks from convention plenty, but with less of a wink than a perplexed shrug. It’s a show that’s trying to figure itself out every bit as much a its lead is.
If you’ve followed Bamford’s career at all (and hopefully you have!) the defining arc of Lady Dynamite should sound familiar. Bamford plays a comedian named Maria Bamford, who’s spent time recently in psychiatric clinics, and on returning just wants to find some balance in her life. In fact, the most pertinent details about the lives of fictional and real-life Bamford run parallel; both are from Duluth, both starred in ads for a national retail chain, both do a lot of voiceover work. Although in fairness, the real Maria Bamford never starred in a sitcom called White Trash, or an ad for Pussy Noodle ramen.
Bamford’s long been open about how she’s dealt with mental illness in her life, including a nervous breakdown in 2011. She’s also keenly aware of the many ways in which mental illness can be a tricky thing to talk about—much less portray on a streaming comedy series.
That’s why the meta touches are so effective. That fourth-wall-smashing Oswalt conversation in the first episode exists to let Bamford talk through the process of creating a show this personal about something so delicate. Should she do standup? How best to show time-jumps? Black and white is too harsh—maybe something blue-ish instead? And then, once she and Officer Oswalt have figured it out, it’s back to the funny.
That plays out time and again. Almost every self-aware intrusion feels like an invitation to watch Bamford work out how exactly she wants to tell her story in real-time. That a date takes place at a restaurant called A Serious Scene is fun wordplay (“I’ve never been in A Serious Scene,” Bamford says), but you also get the sense that she feels compelled to telegraph a tonal shift. It’s telling, too, that the deeper into Lady Dynamite you get, the fewer meta touches pop up. And once the show becomes more comfortable with itself, it starts training its sights on other targets.
Its most effective satire, at least in the first several episodes, stems from Bamford’s attempts to tackle a show about race. That’s both a show her character is cast in, (the aforementioned and terrible) White Trash, but also the third installment of Lady Dynamite itself. Describing what happens would both be spoilerish and tricky, given what a frenetic, layered half hour it is. Suffice to say that both efforts devolve into gleefully meaningless chaos, despite the appearance of real-life 12 Years a Slave screenwriter John Ridley to try and explain where Bamford went wrong.
Just to be clear, all of these breaks from convention are also deeply funny, helped in no small part by a guest lineup that brings together a small constellation of comedy nerd heroes.The most important, or at least closest, people in her orbit include her manager, Bruce (Fred Melamed), her agent (Ana Gasteyer), and her diametrically opposite friends Dagmar (Bridgett Everett) and Larissa (Lennon Parham). Most of them edge up as close to the line of caricature as they can, and occasionally cross it just enough to surprise you.
The rest of Bamford’s world is populated by equally recognizable faces from the comedy world and beyond. Brian Posehn joins Oswalt a few episodes in, as does John Mulaney. Mo Collins recurs as a constantly undermining friend from home. June Diane Raphael and Stephnie Weir pop up. Brandon Routh and Mira Sorvino make short but indelible appearances, as do the Lucas Brothers. (Routh, in particular, is given one of the best fart jokes of recent memory.) Sugar Ray’s Mark McGrath appears from time to time, because that’s just the kind of show Lady Dynamite is.
For all the flashy names and performances—Gasteyer is especially terrific as a brassy agent who knows exactly how she’d kill everyone she meets—Lady Dynamite stays squarely focused on Bamford, whose primary motivation is mostly just keeping it together after a rough time, and figuring out where to go from here. That may not sound like much, but it’s plenty. And better still, it’s relatable.
Lots of shows go meta. Lots of shows are self-referential. Lots of shows wink. And that’s fine! But when Community or Arrested Development breaks the fourth wall, it can put the audience at a remove from the show itself; it’s a quick pause from caring to appreciate how clever we all are. Bamford does it to draw you closer in. It makes you care even more.
For all its self-awareness, Lady Dynamite might just be the most honest show on television. Er, Netflix. Whatever. Just watch it.