TV

‘Lady Dynamite’ (The New ‘Arrested Development’) Is A Groundbreaking Depiction Of Mental Illness

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[Update: July 28]: Netflix has just renewed Lady Dyanmite for a second season! It’ll premiere some time in 2017. Here’s why that’s such good news:

Netflix has found a niche in the wish-fulfilment business for comedy nerds. They resurrected Arrested Development, and extended cult faves Mr. Show (for legal reasons: With Bob and David) and Wet Hot American Summer (as the prequel First Day of Camp). They even gave a last-minute reprieve to Tina Fey’s once-NBC-bound Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.

Its other chunks of all-at-once original content feel more like savvy business calls. There are prestige dramas that appear stolen from HBO (House of Cards, Bloodline) and synergistic collaborations with big-name brands (Marvel’s Daredevil and Jessica Jones; DreamWorks spin-offs Turbo FAST and All Hail King Julien). And then there was Fuller House — what seems like both an attempt to grab at the nostalgia market and conduct a satanic ritual to invoke the Four Crowned Princes of Hell in anticipation of a global, apocalyptic cleansing.

Spoiler: it is not a good show.

Netflix’s latest, Maria Bamford’s just-released Lady Dynamite, thankfully falls into the first category. Not only does it fulfil the wishes of Bamford’s fans (who made do with her fleeting appearances on lesser shows for decades), it rights a number of other serious Hollywood wrongs, giving one of comedy’s most unique voices (literally) an ingenious series of her own.

You Need To Know About Maria Bamford

Co-created with Arrested Development’s Mitch Hurwitz and South Park/ Team America writer Pam Brady, Lady Dynamite welcomes us into — as the series description puts it — “what Maria Bamford has accepted to be ‘her life’.”

Those lucky enough to have heard Bamford’s brilliant, revealing comedy records — or her open-hearted podcast appearances — know the story: she’s an uncannily talented comedian with a penchant for imitating her family. She’s also afflicted by, what she calls, “unwanted thoughts syndrome” (a form of OCD) and Type-II bipolar.

On stage, she segues from stories about her pugs to her time in a psych ward — the result of “repetitively shit ideas” like suicide. (“I’ve also thought many times that it’d be a great idea to go on a vacation with my family,” she’s clarified.) In 2012, she filmed The Special Special Special, a live album with only two audience members: her mum and dad. So yes, she is indeed special: a genius with no equal in comedy today.

But, as blisteringly autobiographical as Lady Dynamite gets, it has no interest in being a straight-down-the-line retelling of Bamford’s fluctuating personal and professional successes. From the very first scene, we learn that Lady Dynamite will switch between three separate timelines, and more than occasionally burst through the fourth wall to directly comment on the story.

Early concerns that this will be yet another stand-up series (like Louie or Seinfeld) are almost immediately dashed. This is first done by Patton Oswalt, then John Mulaney; both of whom who break character (as a cop and gun nut, respectively) to advise Maria that she should really reconsider playing a comedian in her new TV show, like so many before her. This is, for the record, something Mulaney knows a lot about.

As the season progresses — like all Netflix series, its 12 episodes were dropped in one go on Friday — it becomes apparent that Lady Dynamite is not seeking to be Lady Louie. It is its own inimitable beast entirely.

Making Sense Of It All

The three time-periods of the show include the ‘Past’, where ill-prepared, budding comedian Bamford is swallowed whole by an unforgiving industry; ‘Duluth’, the era in which a post-breakdown Bamford moves back home with her parents (Mary Kay Place and Ed Begley Jr.) while undergoing psychological treatment that mostly comprises of constant vision-boarding; and finally, the ‘Present’, where a recovering Maria faces her second big break.

“I’m a 45-year-old woman who’s clearly sun-damaged,” she scream-says with equal measures of cheer and sarcasm in the opening episode. “My skin is getting softer but my bones are jutting out, so I’m half soft, half sharp. And I have a show! What a great late-in-life opportunity!”

Though you may take a few eps to settle into Lady Dynamite’s groove and grasp when exactly (and in which reality) each scene takes place, the eventual rewards are bountiful. Besides, there are plenty of giddy comic flourishes and unexpected cameos (Supermen Brandon Routh and Dean Cain both play love interests) to keep you amused, even while the narrative seems to spin out of reach.

The first ep, for instance, shows Maria ready to re-enter the workforce, turning down high-pressure offers from her agent (the sonorous Fred Melamed) to instead take on the mission of installing a park bench in front of her house (like the real Bamford, who did so to help overcome crippling shyness). Even this invites chaos, self-doubt, and, weirdly, an appearance from Sugar Ray’s Mark McGrath. It’s the kind of escalating bedlam you’d expect from Arrested Development and, like Hurwitz’s previous groundbreaking show, Lady Dynamite has no shortage of brilliant, throwaway jokes. I particularly appreciated a brief glimpse at her incredibly detailed, adventure sports-loving dating profile, “BladeHardorDie12”, which stays on screen for no more than three seconds.

The joke structure may evoke Arrested Development, and the self-effacing celeb appearances may recall Curb Your Enthusiasm, but the surreal series itself is closer in spirit to a Charlie Kaufman movie. For its wonderful cast, innovative storytelling and whip-fast gags, Lady Dynamite belongs immediately atop your ‘must-watch’ list.

Still, we’ve not even quite gotten to the heart of the show and what makes it truly distinctive and exceptional, which is the way it depicts one of television’s last remaining taboos: mental illness.

The Daily Grind Of Mental Health

The entertainment industry is slowly getting better at exploring mental illness. Musical comedy series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend flipped the expectations of its title to produce a layered look at a melancholy woman wrestling with a number of maladies. (As the opening song says, “It’s a lot more nuanced than that”.) Similarly, the sublime You’re The Worst shuddered to a devastating halt in its second season as it confronted a character’s percolating depression.

We also have Mr. Robot, a techno-thriller in which the viewer is the imaginary friend of a hero dealing with social anxiety disorder and delusions, and Horace and Pete, which is bitterly unwatchable, despite Steve Buscemi’s profound performance as the regularly institutionalised Pete, who is doomed by his inability to afford the medication that keeps him from lashing out violently.

Lady Dynamite dives into what old school exces might consider an “unfriendly” disorder for television audiences: type-II bipolar, typified by hypomania and agitated depression. That’s probably why Netflix had to step in and give Bamford a show. Only on a streaming service could you expect a program this raw, anchored by a leading lady who veers from such extremes of her personality. “I have my reasons; there is just no way to understand them,” she says while explaining why she wants to dump a dude mid-way through season one.

Empire uses one character’s similar diagnosis to propel plotlines about murderous conspiracies, family betrayals and sexual espionage. (It is a very eventful show.) Lady Dynamite, on the other hand, portrays bipolar as a burden that can be bettered by daily effort. Bamford learns to put in the sometimes-gruelling emotional work to keep herself healthy, buttressed by well-meaning (if not always helpful) family and friends. The show is smart enough to not ‘save’ her, but remembers to relish her minor, meaningful accomplishments. It celebrates her every episode regardless, with its heroic, karate-kicking opening credit sequence.

Bamford’s skill as a comedian is no longer up for debate. However, Lady Dynamite proves she has the acting chops to play as complicated, endearing, and troubled a character as the slightly fictionalised ‘Maria Bamford’ here. I can think of no others who’d be up to the task. Hopefully, she’ll be given a second season by Netflix, just as quickly as they dumped the first on us. There are plenty of us waiting for it, not to mention entire communities who have gone too long unrepresented on TV.

If that doesn’t convince you: it’s also super funny. We sometimes forget to say that about shows taking on such heavy subject matter in unvarnished ways, but Lady Dynamite is super funny.

Lady Dynamite is streaming now on Netflix.

Simon Miraudo is an AFCA award-winning writer and film critic for Student Edge, RTRFM and ABC Radio. He tweets at @simonmiraudo.