Comedy shows hardly ever sound funny in TV reviews, but with Maria Bamford’s Netflix series “Lady Dynamite,” I feel compelled to at least try to convey the winning sense of goofiness and sincere (if absurd) heart that makes this more than just another show about an underemployed comedian confronting a personal crisis.
Based somewhat on Bamford’s own experiences with mental illness and a breakdown in 2011, “Lady Dynamite” is about a 45-year-old comedian and actor named Maria Bamford who has freshly returned to L.A. from some months in Duluth, Minn., where she stayed with her parents (Mary Kay Place and Ed Begley Jr.) and attended outpatient psychiatric care. “Lady Dynamite” opens with a colorfully manic musical number that turns out to be an imaginary ad for a product called “Sassafras Lady”: “I’m a silly goose!” Maria exclaims as she comes down a playground slide. “I feel French,” she says, ripping a bouquet of flowers out of a stranger’s hand. “I just had my tubes tied,” she purrs to the camera while tooling around in a convertible. “At my age, it’s not safe to have children!”
All of it a momentary hallucination. In more grounded moments, Maria is a squeaky-voiced sprite who occasionally appears in commercials, failed sitcom pilots and ample voice-over work. One of her doomed projects, procured for her by her inept agent, Bruce Ben-Bacharach (Fred Melamed), is a cartoon about a happily captive Sea World orca, “produced by Dr. Bill Cosby,” Maria brags. Another dead-end gig is a Japanese commercial for a “self-ah-steam” ramen cup called Pussy Noodle; later Bruce gets Maria a job hosting a misogynistic game show called “Lock Up a Broad.”
Like almost any good comedy series these days, “Lady Dynamite” (released Friday on Netflix) is filled with smart, fast digs at gender inequality, discrimination, oversized egos and the deplorable quality of Hollywood’s output. This is all certainly nothing new, and even Patton Oswalt breaks the fourth wall during a cameo role as a police officer in the first episode to scold Maria for including her stand-up act in her TV show — just like “Louie,” “Seinfeld” and so many others.
Start to finish, “Lady Dynamite” is an act of self-awareness. Bamford is one of those comic actors with a credit list a mile long, whose shtick is universally loved by other comedians — her admirers are all over the first four episodes in bit parts and cameos. As a result, “Lady Dynamite” feels like firsthand notes from the edge of stardom, where, tellingly, Maria’s sense of humor is continually lost on mainstream observers. To impress the vapid guests at a Hollywood dinner party, she lowers her Munchkin voice into the WASP-y rasp of a woman she calls Diane Winterbottom-Montay, who laughingly ends a story with “So I turn to Bono and I say, ‘Bono, you crazy mick, you’ve been using the Kennedy girl’s tennis racket this whole time.’ ”
More deeply and uniquely, “Lady Dynamite” delivers a knowing, if satirical, glimpse of bipolar disorder — sort of like the Carrie Fisher story with a whole lot more Kimmy Schmidt thrown in. A medicated Maria struggles to get back on her feet professionally, but through a series of flashbacks, momentary reveries and surreal transitions, viewers get a sense of what it’s like to live in her head. Mental illness here is not merely the usual subdued grays and personal nadirs. “Lady Dynamite” also sees it as a pleasurable ride, filled with technicolor joys and hilarious clarity.
Lady Dynamite (12 episodes) is available for streaming on Netflix.