A show about a forty-five year old mentally ill woman struggling to get her life and comedy career back on track after a mental breakdown could be really depressing, but from the opening credits Lady Dynamite aims to subvert that. A slapstick homage to Blaxploitation era films, costumes, wigs, random words thrown out over a wacky song (“Pickles!”)—when I first pressed play I was worried I had wandered into Tim and Eric territory and was ready to back out, but I didn’t and I was richer for it.
After an unfortunate undisclosed incident involving Sugar Ray’s Mark McGrath, comedian and voiceover artist Maria Bamford is diagnosed with Bipolar II and interred at a psychiatric ward in her home town of Duluth, Minnesota. With the clarity of her diagnosis also comes many new hurdles including broaching the subject of mental illness with her friends and family and trying to find love and understanding in a world of ‘normal’ people, not to mention struggling to muster the energy to maintain her stand-up career or even just stand up in general with her new draining psych meds.
Visually and stylistically, the show is highly reminiscent of Arrested Development—director Mitch Hurwitz’s previous critical darling and light of my life (side note: I recently saw the Blue Man Group live, but that’s a story for another time). Lady Dynamite is full of colour and life and perhaps that is the only way to film a show whose content revolves largely around a manic and suicidally depressed middle-aged woman. The series is peppered with amazing comedic guest stars including Patton Oswalt, Jenny Slate, the Lucas Brothers, and my personal favourite Inside Amy Schumer’s Bridget Everett as one of Maria’s best friends (who passionately hates her other best friend). Oh, and there are two pugs and one of them sings.
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The true magic of Lady Dynamite lies in it being one of the most on-point shows to tackle the topic of mental illness to date. As someone who is mentally ill myself, representation in film and television is incredibly important to me and on the whole it’s pretty disappointing, with complex disorders often reduced to quirks and generalizations. This is particularly prevalent when it concerns mentally ill women, where you are given three categories: pale girls who write bad poetry, hysterical vengeful harpies, or the dreaded manic pixie dream girl—heaven forbid women not be sexualized even in regards to their mental health! Lady Dynamite refuses to indulge any of these stereotypes, giving an honest, if surreal, portrayal of what it’s like dealing with mental illness, medication, institutionalization, and recovery—even breaking the fourth wall to note that flashbacks set in Maria’s psych ward will have a blue wash to them, because it’s fucking miserable there.
With only twelve episodes it’s easy to get lost in Maria’s mind for a day and then the dream is over, but one of my favorite things about the age of Netflix full-series releases is the notion that none of it is filler. To let loose a complete chunk of a show ready for binge watching means that it almost becomes a really long movie that you don’t want to turn off after seven hours, even though getting through all 179 minutes of The Wolf of Wall Street felt like a fucking battle. Each episode requires a cohesiveness and continuity and Lady Dynamite does it perfectly, coming to a surprisingly emotionally satisfying conclusion at the series’ end. In short: easily one of my favourite shows of 2016 and I can’t stop recommending it.