By now, it’s old news that Netflix is absolutely crushing its foray into original television content. Shows like “Orange Is the New Black,” “House of Cards” and “Narcos” have captured the public’s attention with their strong acting and devotion to cliffhangers. However, their comedies have garnered less attention than their dramas, which generally lend themselves better to binge-watching due to their structure.
The platform has invested a good deal of creative energy into comedy from the fourth season of “Arrested Development” onward, yet that erratic season remains arguably the most well-known of Netflix’s original content. Shows like the hilarious and uncomfortable “BoJack Horseman,” the scathing yet uneven “Master of None” and the whiny millennial-bait “Love” have flown under the radar compared to their buzzier dramatic counterparts, though its not for lack of advertising or star power.
“Lady Dynamite,” Netflix’s most recent addition to its comedy canon, seems to be of a piece with its other offerings. The show boasts a cast with the likes of John Mulaney, Jenny Slate, Ana Gasteyer and other famous funny people, and you can find a billboard for the show everywhere you look in Los Angeles. Don’t be fooled by this familiarity—“Lady Dynamite” is not just the best Netflix comedy, but the best Netflix show, period.
Despite the starriness of the cast, “Lady Dynamite” is anchored by its star, head writer and executive producer Maria Bamford. The show is a lightly fictionalized version of Bamford’s ascent to fame via a series of commercials for a major retail store (Target in real life, the exploitative Checklist on the show), her efforts to cope with her diagnosis of bipolar II disorder and subsequent breakdown and her reintegration into glitzy Hollywood lifestyle. Throughout the season’s twelve episodes, the narrative is divided into three concurrent periods tracking Bamford pre-breakdown, during recovery and post-breakdown—a structure that adds to the overall surrealism of the show’s humor and accurately conveys Bamford’s feeling that she lacks control over her own narrative.
The show, which also hails from “Arrested Development” creator Mitch Hurwitz and “South Park” vet Pam Brady, has classic trademarks of both source shows. Wordplay and non sequiturs are staples of the “Lady Dynamite” universe, and much of the show’s supremely silly comedy is derived from its portrayal of a fun house Hollywood. Bamford is a singular comedic voice, and her perspective and filtering of her surroundings add a sense of whimsy permeated with sadness.
“Lady Dynamite” is one of the darker comedies in many years, similar to “Bojack Horseman” in its treatment of mental illness and its effect on the affected person and their loved ones. Mary Kay Place and Ed Begley, Jr. show up as Bamford’s concerned parents in the recovery segment of the narrative, and their attempts to engage with their daughter and help her as best they can is humorous and heartbreaking in equal measure. There is scene in episode two in which Bamford’s attempt to cure herself through music by starting a family band leads to a raucous performance of the original track “Minnesota Ladies” and ensuing mid-set meltdown. Place leans down to help Bamford, takes the mic and begins singing the doxology in order to end the performance with dignity. Like most of “Lady Dynamite,” it’s supremely funny, a little nonsensical and very sad.
Bamford, Place, and Begley, Jr. are the core members of a uniformly excellent cast. Fred Melamed (“A Single Man,” “In A World…”) plays Bamford’s bumbling yet well-intentioned agent whose efforts to bolster his client’s career through misguided methods, such as a gig at the “Touch the Children” philanthropy event, backfire. Ana Gasteyer, June Diane Raphael and Jenny Slate play the three Karen Grishams, the alpha-women in Bamford’s life whose attempts to control her career and domesticity precipitate her eventual meltdown. Raphael in particular deserves acclaim as Bamford’s realtor, as her tightly-wound and vicious performance leads to “Lady Dynamite”’s funniest scenes. Other cast members such as Olafur Darri Olafsson, Bridget Everett and Lennon Parham and cameos from Sarah Silverman, Judd Apatow, Patton Oswalt and Mira Sorvino reinforce “Lady Dynamite”’s ability to snag talent and deploy it in interesting and subversive ways, and the entire show is a treasure trove of alternative comedians showcasing their abilities.
Above it all, Bamford stands head and shoulders above the rest. Her stand-up in real life is some of the most raw yet life-affirming comedy of the past decade, and “Lady Dynamite” is the perfect showcase for her. Bamford’s loose portrayal of herself anchors the show, and she obviously deftly handles the show’s comedic material. However, she truly shines in the dramatic scenes. “Lady Dynamite”’s version of Bamford is sad and a little rudderless, yet has a sense of profound optimism and humor that keep her afloat even in tough times. The post-breakdown Bamford embraces negativity and adversity head on and channels it into upward mobility and happiness even when she doesn’t quite know what she’s doing more than half of the time. It’s an Emmy-worthy portrayal in an Emmy-worthy show and deserves to be watched. “Lady Dynamite” is a comedic masterpiece and one of the best comedies of the year. Don’t sleep on it; you can’t miss this singularly wacky and wonderful show.