Weird women over 40 don’t often get their own comedies. They play the wacky sidekick or the eccentric mother, not the star. That’s part of the reason Lady Dynamite feels so revelatory: Its co-creator and star, Maria Bamford, is a truly weird woman—and a truly original voice. Born in Duluth, Minn., where she performed standup with a natural high-pitched squeak of a crazed Disney creature, Bamford has played a meth-head on Arrested Development and voiced a goat in Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness. But hardcore fans know her best for 2012’s Maria Bamford: the special special special! (now streaming on Netflix), a masterpiece of awkwardness in which she cracks jokes about her real-life nervous breakdown while performing for her parents in their home. She continues to riff on her fragile mental state in the semiautobiographical Lady Dynamite, which she executive-produced with Pam Brady (South Park) and Mitchell Hurwitz (Arrested Development). In an early scene, she’s daydreaming about starring in a bizarre shampoo commercial when she realizes that she’s on TV for real. “I have a show?” she asks. “I’m a 45-year-old woman who’s clearly sun-damaged! 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!” She’s being sarcastic—or maybe she’s not?
Yes, anything can happen in Bamford’s world, and that sense of endless possibility makes Lady Dynamite a joy to watch. Each episode loosely follows some semblance of a plot—one finds Maria dating a bisexual drug addict, another finds her acting in a racist sitcom—but the story is mostly an excuse to string together very funny, absurdist moments. Maria’s manager (Fred Melamed) transforms into a lamb. Her agent (Ana Gasteyer) plots how to kill every person she sees. When someone compares Bamford to a Samoyed/husky mix, the camera cuts to an actual husky, watching TV. “Hey!” says the dog, offended. “Not cool.”
The tone is as manic as Bamford herself: She was diagnosed with bipolar II disorder in real life. Watching Lady Dynamite, you might feel as if she’s grabbing your hand and yanking you forward. Characters talk fast and walk fast. Maria’s L.A. neighborhood is hypercolored, as if built by someone who’s watched too many cartoons. Like in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, tension radiates behind that relentlessly upbeat energy. She’s forcing you to get inside her brain. Flashbacks show her getting treatment as a child in Duluth, where her therapist encourages her to get angry. “Isn’t there anyone here who chaps your crapper?” the therapist asks. When Bamford says no, the therapist frowns. “Donna,” she says, pointing to a sad-looking patient, “is a straight-up B.” Our heroine hangs her head in shame.
The humor can be caustic, but this is a surprisingly moving show about a desperate woman who wants so much to connect, she even builds a bench to share with the neighbors. Its broader critiques of the industry can feel too easy. The racist-sitcom episode would be more provocative if it didn’t just deal with white-person guilt. But as a personal statement, it’s a work of exquisite vulnerability, one that asks what’s crazier: a woman struggling with mental illness or the cultural norms that made her that way. It’s a question so troubling, you have to laugh. A–