“Now, I’m super careful when I kiss squirrels.” That’s the kind of thing you can expect to hear in Netflix’s new series, Lady Dynamite. The show, which stars comedian Maria Bamford, is one of the most unpredictable, weirdest, silliest comedies around. That’s saying something, given we’ve only just had the return of Netflix’s other, similarly surprising comedy, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. In fact, the two have a lot in common.
The programme is, on the surface, something we’ve all seen before: a comedian playing a version of themselves in a semi-serious sitcom about their life. Self-deprecating parodies, awkward silences and observational stand-up. It’s all here. But this isn’t just any comedian: this is Maria Bamford. When she decides to do some stand-up halfway through the first episode, her local police officer (played by Patton Oswalt) turns up to stop her. Then, he breaks character and starts to give her advice on how to do her own show.
“Are you the comedy police? You’re also an actor,” comes Maria’s retort, as she orders him to do his lines so the scene can continue. That’s the kind of thing you can expect from Lady Dynamite: something unexpected, smart and dizzyingly self-aware. This show isn’t just meta: it’s meta about being meta, like watching Charlie Kaufman take a selfie in front of a picture of himself, while discussing post-modernism with Deadpool.
That undermining undercurrent runs throughout the show’s first four episodes, with background characters introducing themselves with such lines as “I’m your waiter, the less you know about me the better”. Even the opening sequence is an ultra-cheesy spoof advert that crashes back to reality with the bizarre spectacle of our heroine groping vegetables in the street. The direction is whip-smart, diving into such recognisable formats at a moment’s notice, and Bamford leaps head-first after it, her physical energy and hyperactive facial expressions subverting norms to create something disarmingly manic.
She’s matched by a superb supporting cast, from A Serious Man’s Fred Melamed as her incompetent manager, Bruce Ben-Bacharach, to the delightful Ana Gasteyer as her forthright agent, Karen Grisham. Even the production team behind the camera have a knack for making simple objects laugh-out-loud funny, from Bruce’s huge desk to Karen’s equally giant glasses.
The result zips back and forth between the absurd the surreal – and at one hell of a pace. The laughs may not always land, especially at first, but you never have to wait long for the next one and, once you click with the unabashedly idiosyncratic mood, you’ll find yourself rewinding to catch the gag you just missed. By the third and fourth episode, there are giggles everywhere, from a wonderfully deadpan Brandon Routh as a man with no sense of humour, who’s turned on by Maria’s fake posh voice, to an encounter with a cuckolded bisexual. (“He wouldn’t care if you were a woman.” “I am a woman!”)
It’s easy to see the traces of Arrested Development’s Mitch Hurwitz and South Park’s Pam Brady, both of whom are credited with writing and creating the show, whether it’s the serious scene in which Maria is pleased that she can do a serious scene or a violent, castrating Japanese ramen commercial. One satirical episode based around racism (featuring 22 Jump St’s The Lucas Brothers) is deceptively smart, as Maria (cast on a sitcom called “White Trash”) stands up for her co-stars, only to be called out for ending her token episode about race with a cliched white-people-solved-inequality message that doesn’t mean (or solve) anything.
On its own, all of that would make for an impressive new comedy show, but Lady Dynamite has something extra up its sleeve: Maria Bamford. The comedian, who has been diagnosed with bipolar depression in real life, consistently weaves the theme of her mental illness into her performance. She moves with the crazed need of other people’s approval, frequently appearing more confident and charismatic when adopting another persona. Then, she subtly crumples back into her uneasy, actual self, speaking with a voice that twitches from high-pitched excitement to gravelly disappointment and back again, often within the same sentence.
There’s a frantic, fragile hint of past breakdowns, but also the resilient strength of a woman who remains forever on the verge of (metaphorically) blowing herself up, who grasps at the phrase “cradle the balls and work the shaft” as a motivational mantra, who seizes the opportunity to change the colour of the picture to convey a different time period (because that’s what’s done on TV), and who, no matter what, just keeps on going. There’s something marvellous in the way Lady Dynamite presents a similar, inspiring positivity to that of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. But most of all, Netflix’s two female-led comedies have something else in common: they’re very, very funny. Depression. Racism. Squirrels. You’ve never seen a sitcom quite like this.
All episodes of Lady Dynamite are available on Netflix UK from Friday 20th May, as part of a £7.49 monthly subscription.
Photo: Doug Hyun / Netflix