Monday, June 6, 2016

"Lady Dynamite" Season 1 on Netflix

Maria Bamford has been around the comedy scene, stand up and character performing, for some time.   I can remember stand-up clips of a very young Bamford on basic cable in the late 90's, and a general awareness of who she was despite the fact I'm not one of those folks who follows comedy the way some people follow music.  But, she had a unique voice (literally and metaphorically) from the time she came out of the gate.

In 2005 she appeared as part of the documentary, The Comedians of Comedy, which followed comedians Patton Oswalt, Brian Posehn, Zach Galifianakis and Maria Bamford as they toured the country playing, basically, rock clubs.   And I remember watching the film and being deeply concerned for Bamford during the entire movie.  They sort of tried to play it off as "Maria keeps to herself.  Maria's an introvert," but the movie basically gave up on trying to get her to participate, and so she became a kind of non-entity within the film.

In 2012, on the heels of Louis CK figuring out people would pay him directly for content and the rise of Kickstarter, Maria Bamford also had a special "The Special Special Special", which I paid to Ms. Bamford to download.  And if you've never seen The Special Special Special, it's kind of amazing.  She basically does an entirely new set for her parents from inside her living room.   And I guess it was while watching that show, or around that time, that I learned she'd had some sort of mental breakdown.  And, it seemed, doing this special was Phase 1 of her getting her feet back under her, professionally.

She appeared in the Netflix season of Arrested Development (as someone playing Sue Storm in a knock-off Fantastic Four),  and held her own with that cast, which is no mean feat.  And, as she has always done, she's toured relentlessly.  I see she's in Austin for the Moontower Comedy festival every year (going on now.  She was on local drive-time radio just this morning), and I think she's here more than that - but I haven't been to see stand-up since a semi-traumatic family outing when I was in college.*

But from the first few minutes of the first episode of Lady Dynamite (now streaming on Netflix), it feels like someone has finally properly placed the megaphone to Bamford's mouth and given her the proper stage where it's not just her freaking out the squares doing her stand-up or trying to fit into someone else's mold of how entertainment is supposed to work.  The show is Bamford's world, and it's - for once (and people say this a lot, but I think it's a safe bet it's true here) - a unique perspective.

Not many shows out there are a sitcom recounting the protagonist's real-life struggles with mental illness.  And making it understandable, sympathetic, and honest-to-god hilarious.
Produced by Pam Brady of South Park fame and Mitchell Hurwitz of Arrested Development, the show has a pedigree for risk taking, complex storytelling and maybe being willing to say some things that most shows don't take on, delivered up sincerely but baked within a comedy.

The show is by no means a documentary, but does track Bamford's recent life history from her role as the "Crazy for Christmas" lady in Target ads (renamed to "Checklist" in the show), her struggles with bi-polar disorder, collapse, time in out-patient treatment in Duluth and a wary return to LA.  Because it's a show about someone in showbiz, it includes struggles with her well-meaning manager versus her attempts to work with high-rolling representation (Ana Gasteyer reminding you how funny she is).

The bit I suspect will be a bit of a turn-off for some folks is that the story is folded across three time frames - Pre-Breakdown Past, Treatment time in Duluth and what comes after when Maria returns to LA, switching between these timeframes to find the pattern in her own behavior and perspective.  It took me two episodes before I understood exactly how they were working with timelines, but it does hold together very well once you've got the pattern down.

The show is also not super-synced to reality, delving into asides, talking pugs, and bits of imagination as the pilot's opening hair care product pitch sequence shall clearly illustrate.  But I also don't want to spoil anything.

Clearly Bamford and/ or somebody on the show is well liked in the industry as the show is full of a tremendous number of guest spots, many of whom play themselves, some of whom play other characters.  Heck, the show lands two former Supermans in Brandon Routh and Dean Cain, both suitors for Maria.  Wendie Malick.  And many comedians appear, including Patton Oswalt, Sarah Silverman, Andy Kintler (used for comic gold), and even Tig Notaro who I'm not even sure was supposed to be in her scenes, but it works.  And, the Lucas Brothers.  Who should really be in everything as themselves, up to and including Star Wars.  And, like, 75 more.

But the main cast includes a bunch of folks you already like.  Fred Melamed as Maria's manager.  Mary Kay Place and Ed Begley Jr. as her parents (Begley has been awesome in everything I've seen him in for about the last 15-20 years).  Jenny Slate.  June Diane Rafael.  And, man, do I just dig Mo Collins.  I can't think of a single thing she's done that I was not 150% on-board with.

And, if you want to see a truly inspired casting of "two best friends", Larissa (Lennon Parham) and Dagmar (Bridgett Everett).

I'm going to skimp on sharing the plot points or highlights, because I really do think that layered discovery is part of the enjoyment of the show.  Just, you know... let it occur.

Sometimes people do these things that get honest and personal and they try to put a spin on it as a comedian and it doesn't work.  Something's off, or their overriding narcissism or sense of entitlement seems to be an untouched, undiscussed factor in their issues.  Or - man, making fun of your alcoholism only works if the jokes are funny...  But that's not so much the case with Bamford.  Since the Special Special Special, somehow, weirdly, Bamford seems to have sorted it out.  That set was amazing, and there's nothing about the show, which is more or less about dealing with bi-polar disorder (and a host of insecurities), that Bamford doesn't own so well you aren't going along with her.  Her ugly moments are hilariously ugly, and her manic moments are clearly unhinged, and trying to find a pace that works in the "present" is a challenge you can get.  She's honest about it, is real about what she deals with, but she also can distance herself enough to understand how to talk about it in a way that doesn't just leave you either looking for the door or wanting to just cry that she thought this was a good idea.

Seriously, the show is amazing, and hilarious and accomplishes everything I suspect she set out to do in only 12 short episodes.  I don't know that I'd previously seen a show that sought to share and de-stigmatize mental illness so successfully as this program.  It's not the TV movie of the week, nor an actor trying to win an Oscar nod for their melodramatic portrayal.  Instead, acknowledging mental illness and that its part of who this character is, but just one facet, and all within the context of a wildly entertaining show - hey, mission accomplished.

Her biggest problem is - the show is clearly roughly autobiographical, and she used up about the last, eh, five years or so of her life's story.  So, I'm not really sure how you do Season 2, but I'll be here to find out if Bamford feels like doing it.

*I know I've mentioned being forced by my folks to go to a comedy club in suburban Houston, which was awkward enough - your sense of humor at age 21 may not be what your parents think is funny - but the closing act was 80's era ventriloquist comedian Willie Tyler, fresh out of rehab and going through a lot of stuff right up there on stage.  I had originally thought I saw the set at age 18, but I now realize it was some time after, when "I Believe I Can Fly" was on the radio, as Willie & Lester performed a duet of the song to an absolutely puzzled audience.


Simon MacDonald said...

I was aware of Maria Bamford from her appearances on The Best Show with Tom Sharpling but I've never seen The Special Special Special. I did recently listen to her on Bullseye with Jesse Thorn and resolved I should check out her Netflix show. Reading your synopsis of it made me go add it to my Netflix queue.

Paul Toohey said...

I didn't realize that Ryan had another FoT friend. The Best Shie is one of my favorite things.

Simon MacDonald said...

@Paul is one of my secret (now public) shames that I did not get down to a taping of The Best Show when it was hosted at WFMU. It is only a 6 hour car ride, 1 hour plane flight from where I live with relatives in the NYC area to crash at.

Paul Toohey said...

I kind of wished I would have tried to make that mecca. Maybe with the new show I will get to someday. I've worked on a couple things with Jo Firestone recently and the second time I told her I was a big Best Show fan, she kinda spoiled part of the allure of the new studio (which I can divulge privately if you want).

I keep thinking about trying to get a Austin FoT listening group together, but, I rarely ever am available to listen live.