Maria Bamford may not be putting her stand-up routine into her sitcom, as she announces at the start of “Bisexual Because of Meth,” but Lady Dynamite feels like a natural extension of her act. She didn’t write the show herself, but it’s stuffed with her goofy voices, risky jokes, abrupt transitions, and distinctive brand of emotional intelligence.
After the pilot, I worried that Bamford’s sitcom might become 30 Rock on steroids — a flurry of meta jokes that lose sight of character development and narrative message. But in this episode, the humor is toned down to a reasonable and chuckle-worthy volume, leaving more space for the show to explore mental illness treatment and recovery. This is where Lady Dynamite truly shines.
On her latest quest to resist Bruce’s epically bad instincts, Maria elects not to do an ad campaign for a ramen product called Pussy Noodle. It’s a play on outrageous Japanese commercials, à la Lost in Translation, but decidedly more violent. Unfortunately, these jokes are tinged with the same racist humor that led Sofia Coppola to catch well-deserved flak when her movie came out in 2004. The show seems better than this.
Maria is proud to make this career decision, a sign that she’s learning to look out for herself post-hospitalization. She’s more comfortable saying “no” to things she doesn’t want to do. In the past, we see a naïve Maria making a different choice: She takes a small role on a network sitcom called Baby on Board. The only joke in this fictional sitcom, which calls to mind the worst Super Bowl commercials, seems to be that a sexist baby is also a businessman. In the scene we see, the baby makes a comment about Maria’s boobs. She ad-libs in response, calling him “an adorable representation of misogyny.”
Afterward, Bruce pulls Maria aside to inform her that she’s been fired from the show — but good news! She’ll get to finish out the day on set. An anxious and fed-up Maria stumbles upon Karen Grisham, who, in a bit of righteous fury, agrees to sign her as a client. It’s a decision, Maria warns us, that she’ll come to regret.
In the present day, Maria believes she’ll regret agreeing to go on a date with Shane (Josh Casaubon), whom she persistently describes as a bisexual meth addict. At a bar cheekily named Switch Hitters, Maria and Shane are surprised to hit it off, bonding over their ongoing recoveries from mental illness and substance abuse, information that Larissa recklessly divulged to both parties beforehand. “I’ve been in a psych ward three times in the past year and that does not define me,” Maria tells Shane. Disclosing mental illness to a romantic interest is often tough, so it’s a joy to watch them breeze through it here.
After a dreamlike first date, Maria concludes that she should stop trusting her gut. If her instincts were wrong about Shane, what else might she be missing? She promises Bruce she’ll do the Pussy Noodle campaign, trusting him to know what’s best for her. The hug they share is something no one should ever have to see on TV, let alone experience in real life.
With that, we jump back to Duluth, where Maria calls a family meeting in her parents’ driveway. Much to her parents’ and Susan’s concern, she announces that she had a major breakthrough in music therapy. Maria is convinced that she’s cured and done attending her hospital outpatient sessions, even though it’s only been a few days.
The alleged cure, as Maria unveils while opening the garage door, is The Bamdford Family Bamd. Susan thinks the spelling is a mistake, probably because she assumes mentally ill people aren’t capable of making puns. With Maria on vocals, this adorable little four-piece, plaid-wearing group is all set to play its first gig at the local VA.
Cut to the VA. Moments after helping her father overcome his stage fright so he can man the drums, Maria herself collapses in the middle of the song. Lying in the fetal position while her mom holds her, she says into the microphone that she’s not cured. It was always clear that a breakdown was coming, but that doesn’t make it any less hard for Maria’s parents — or us — to watch.
It’s a good reminder that wellness is a process, as Maria says in a present day voice-over. That’s why she decides to take things slow with Shane, telling him she doesn’t want to go home with him on their second date. They’re dining at a restaurant called Aseriascene, and they really run with the spirit of the name, holding hands and gazing into each other’s eyes as they once again find common ground in their experiences with mental illness.
Maria drives home, celebrating her commitment to taking things slow, until she turns on the radio to hear the Delilah-esque host of a public-radio show called Convenient Devices tell her it’s time to sleep with Shane. That’s all the encouragement she needs to floor it back to his apartment, where she finds the Aseraiscene waiter blowing him. Having thought Shane’s meth addiction made him bi and convinced he must be using again, Maria runs inside yelling, “Intervention!”
He’s not using. Shane calls himself a recovering meth addict and “current cock addict.” In fact, he has a boyfriend, Gabriel (Craig Frank), whom he cheats on. Gabriel walks in just as Maria decides she’s ready to get serious with Shane, and he breaks up with him on the spot when he learns about Maria and the waiter.
Will Maria also break up with Shane? It’s the moment of truth: She must trust herself to make the decision that’s healthiest for her. Until this point, the episode is surprisingly light on surrealism, so of course it’s revealed that Maria’s whole dilemma is the grand finale of a Japanese game show. “Will you offer pussy to Shane?” the host asks. After a beat, Maria declines, celebrating her newfound self-esteem.
It’s nice to see Maria make a positive choice for herself, but here’s hoping we start spending more time in Duluth with The Bamdford Family Bamd. Though the bulk of Lady Dynamite is set in the present, the opportunity to learn Maria’s backstory has quickly proven to be the show’s real strength.