Why Lady Dynamite only feels like a simulacrum of a Maria Bamford show
If you're a fan of Maria Bamford, there's something just slightly off about her Netflix show. And the reason is clear: It's not really her show.
Lady Dynamite, the Maria Bamford vehicle co-created by South Park's Pam Grady and Arrested Development's Mitch Hurwitz, is back for a second season on Friday. The surreal Netflix show (which boasts talking animals and multiple timelines, each with its own color palette) spent its first season on material familiar to Bamford fans: It covered the comedian's struggles with mental health, her past with her parents, and a psychiatric breakdown similar to one Bamford really experienced in 2011. The show vividly rendered Bamford's devolving mental health in ways viewers experienced too: for instance, several characters, played by different actors, were named "Karen Grisham" for no reason except that the world is needlessly confusing. And her struggle to simulate normalcy led her to develop an alternate "persona," complete with a plummy accent, that her boyfriends preferred over the real deal.
Based on the three episodes made available to critics, the second season is just as zany (if quite a bit happier). But it crystallized for me why the show has, from the start, felt more like a simulacrum of Bamford's comedy than Bamford's comedy itself. Yes, this is yet another semi-autobiographical show about a beloved comedian. But if you're a slightly obsessive fan of Bamford's (as I am), there's something just slightly off about it. The material is right, but the rhythms and choices sometimes don't feel like her.
The reason it doesn't feel like her — and I can't believe it took me this long to realize this — is because it's not her. Even though the show uses her name, story, and person, Maria Bamford is neither creator nor showrunner on Lady Dynamite. She's written none of the episodes. We're awash in semi-autobiographical shows by comedians right now. But Lady Dynamite actually isn't one of them! It's a weirder beast altogether: a show about a confessional comedian that's only pretending to be a confessional comedy.
Adding to the weirdness is that we know what Bamford does when adapting her own material. Her legendary web series, The Maria Bamford Show, was about another mental breakdown in which she plays every part.
In a recent interview with Vogue, Bamford discusses her choice to run her life story through a show in which she has less artistic input than fans might expect. Sure, she visits the writer's room for a few hours a week, but "I've heard that it's better that I'm not there, because I do get so anxious, and I would probably put the kibosh on a million beautiful ideas," she says. The show functions, then, as the curious opposite of the comedic self-expression we've come to expect from these semi-autobiographical programs. It takes all the ingredients of Maria Bamford's comedy and life — and her parents and dogs and husband and history and body — and runs them through a non-Maria filter that includes influences like South Park and Arrested Development.
That might be the most interesting thing about Lady Dynamite. In its second season, the show remains brightly colored and brittle and funny and kind of exhausting. It flits between past and present as the fictional Maria — still a flawed, ethically aspirational soul — dances around naked, avoiding the mandatory pixellation of her own body on her own show because she's "body positive." She makes fajitas for discerning raccoons. She's co-habiting with her boyfriend Scott (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, whose character is named after Bamford's real-life husband, Scott Marvel Cassidy). And she's taking her good and decent impulses to well-meaning extremes: Her passion for not wasting water means that she "air-dries" after a shower, dripping and destroying her own hardwood floor in the process. It's not a great solution. In fact, every life lesson — whether it's Maria's dad's method for dealing with repression or Judd Apatow's formula for overcoming his hatred of cross-stitch — fits on a bumper sticker and is about as convincing.
As Maria fails to strike the right balance between work and love, the weird ways in which the "real people" in Bamford's life story conflict with their fictional representations accrete. Kurt Braunohler plays Bamford's father Joel Bamford in a flashback to Maria's teenage years, but Lady Dynamite needlessly asserts that Braunohler IS Joel Bamford in jokey TV credits. "Joel Bamford as Joel Bamford." Bamford's actual father, the real Joel Bamford, does make an appearance later — on the set of Maria's new TV show, playing some now-totally-distorted version of her parents. By the same token, when Bamford's (real) husband appears on the show, he's not playing himself — that spot has been taken by Ólafsson, who plays a character with his name. You see how dizzying these "autobiographical" claims are starting to get? The fictional versions become stranger as the real people start to show up. The show has always been about displacements of the self, but it seems to be increasingly interested in how show business distorts things — even semi-autobiographical things — so much that the whole exercise feels like a funhouse mirror.
In The Maria Bamford Show, part of the joke is that Bamford (whose character Maria is back in her parents' house recovering from a mental breakdown) plays every single part. She plays her mother, her father, her high school bully, her LA friend, her crush, her sister, and her dog. Sure, they're caricatures, but almost every one is oddly nuanced and believable — and objects to Bamford's uncharitable portrayal of them. Their irritation with Maria clarifies what a burden she might be to live with, how irritated she is with herself, and how much she struggles both with the ethical ugliness of using one's family for material and the deep sense of injury when they don't like (or get) your act. It's deftly done. In Lady Dynamite, there's no equivalent examination; the zaniness sprawls more than it inquires. If in The Maria Bamford Show, Bamford writes and plays all the characters, in Lady Dynamite she only plays "herself," and it's a version scripted by others.
Bamford says in that Vogue interview that she's found a lot of freedom in the collaborative creative process Lady Dynamite has made possible: "I've gotten to say exactly what I've wanted a million times, so I think this is more fun and interesting for me now."
I'm not sure it's more and fun and interesting for me — as a longtime Bamford fan, I always want more of her sensibility, not less. I admire her perfectionism, and there's a gentleness and care to her choices that Lady Dynamite lacks. But there's no question that it's a fascinating experiment. Lady Dynamite is about mental illness and comedy and surrealism. It's also about the intimate struggle for personal growth, particularly the urge to control things you can't. It's hard to imagine a more hard-hitting meta-therapeutic scenario than one in which the artist turns her own mental health journey over to a team of writers — makes it an occasion for collaboration — and personally opts out until it's time for her to star … in the show about her that she didn't write.