Maria Bamford’s Lady Dynamite, created in collaboration with Arrested Development’s Pam Brady and Mitch Hurwitz, was the most interesting addition to Netflix’s original content catalog in 2016. It’s a bizarro-world show-biz sitcom with three timelines, a smattering of animation, Candy Land production design, talking pugs, and a heroine who explains that, physically, she can only speak in “baby voice” or “rich lady at a cocktail party” voice.
It’s a more immediately lovable iteration on 30 Rock’s entertainment-industry satire. Lady Dynamite has the same ability to pull apart popular culture and command impressive guest turns. (Season 1 has Ana Gasteyer, Jenny Slate, and Judd Apatow; season 2 adds Andy Samberg, Judy Greer, and Weird Al Yankovic.) But its lead is far less interested in posturing as Pinterest’s idea of a mess, and far more interested in struggling to keep her shit together for real. Season 1 has about a thousand plot lines, but to put it simply: it follows a character named Maria Bamford, played by Maria Bamford, as she tries to move forward with her comedy career and take care of her mental health at the same time. This involves turning down a Judd Apatow movie over and over, offending him deeply.
Season 2 is both stranger than the first and more aggressively meta. Between all the usual antics (the first episode’s A-plot is about a raccoon named Randall), it’s a dissection of how a TV show gets green-lit in the streaming age — through consideration of how it fits into a catalog, a recommendation algorithm, a brand, etc. Lady Dynamite directly addresses how a struggle with bipolar disorder is worthy of series-length exploration, even while implying that Netflix is taking advantage of it to win brownie points with subscribers and critics.
The second season’s structure is just as odd as the first, with frequent time jumps back to Bamford’s 1987 adolescence in Duluth, Minnesota, and forward to a jarring, dystopian future in which she’s turning her life into a TV show (called Maria Bamford is Nuts!) for a content farm called “MuskVision.” MuskVision is an Elon Musk property, but it has the Netflix branding and color scheme. (There are also several side plots that involve a malevolent autonomous Tesla.) Maria Bamford is Nuts! — a science fiction reimagining of her life, in which she, again, plays herself — is green-lit after a small robot named Don Jr. (I’m still struggling to figure out that part of the joke) scans her face and feeds her through an algorithm. MuskVision needs more mental illness content, Don Jr. declares! Ana Gasteyer, playing a Hollywood agent whose flame-adorned office building looks like the gates of Hell, explains why: “I want to tell the story of your fucking life in bingeable fucking installments! It will be so inventive and groundbreaking in its comedy that alt-comedy Twitter will choke on its own jizz! And here is the cherry on the streaming sundae: we will focus on mental illness, and we will destigmatize it, forever!”
In a recent interview with the AV Club, Bamford explains that the second season of Lady Dynamite gave her the unexpected opportunity to critique the first. In a brain-busting twist, some of the examples she uses in this interview double as lines her character says on Lady Dynamite, in a handful of direct addresses to the camera. Bamford — as either the real Bamford or the show-within-a-show Bamford; it’s hard to tell which fourth wall she’s breaking at any given moment — takes a sidebar to say that her first season (of Lady Dynamite or of Maria Bamford is Nuts!, it isn’t clear) had too many blowjobs, and that it “wasn’t cool” to have an entirely white writers’ room collaborate on an episode about race. She isn’t just critiquing her streaming platform, she’s critiquing the show it let her produce.
The new season of Lady Dynamite also has a lot of strange 30 Rock-esque plotlines that initially seem like distractions. Bamford’s character finds out that her manager Bruce Ben-Bacharach (Fred Melamed) tricked her into a production deal involving half a dozen reality competition TV shows starring children in the Philippines. They have sinister titles like Kids Have to Dance, Can You Beat Up a Fifth Grader? and Shark Tank. Hoping to atone for her involvement, Bamford tries to ingratiate herself at a Filipino community center in Los Angeles, and ends up accidentally letting a bunch of strangers plan her wedding. What they come up with involves a stranger in red glitter walking her down the aisle, six-foot wings with portraits of every Catholic saint glued onto them, and an atmosphere that her mother declares “like a Mad Max movie without the dust.”
This season also introduces the “Hollywood Ladies Club,” a Skull and Bones-like organization led by Transparent creator Jill Soloway. Its goal is to lean into and exploit Hollywood sexism, keeping men distracted by keeping them “jacking it” all the time. This involves sending Maria on a quest to unleash a “hive-queen” named Ranlith. “Have you seen the Matrix trilogy?” Maria is asked, two or three times, as part of her introduction to this bonkers conspiracy. “No I haven’t, and I really don’t want to,” she keeps muttering, “It just looks so boring.” Later, en route to the core of the Earth, she has to use her boobs and tongue to jump-start a magical elevator.
This probably sounds like incoherent, over-the-top storytelling. It’s true that Bamford doesn’t actually arrive at a digestible critique of Hollywood sexism, or the whiteness of writers’ rooms. But eventually, both of these plotlines are revealed as spinoffs from the show’s central conflict, like Bamford’s tendency to take on more and more responsibility and emotional obligation until it threatens to destroy her. She presents that as the result of a pathological fear of hurting or disappointing anyone for even a second, and she pushes both plots to absurd lengths to show just how irrational the fear is.
In the same AV Club interview, Bamford speaks diplomatically but disconcertingly about how the 17-hour production days on her Netflix series were almost unmanageable for her. She was told that doing 10-hour “child actor days” would be too expensive. Of course, that production schedule isn’t unique to Netflix, but you don’t have to guess at how it threatened Bamford’s mental health; this risk is literally the plot of the second season of her Netflix show.
Lady Dynamite’s frank hostility toward Netflix may be less satisfying for the average viewer than it is for me, a culture writer trying to keep up with a dozen original series releases each month. But anyone navigating the age of peak TV has likely felt a twinge of the feeling Bamford expresses here: that all life experiences exist to be pushed through an algorithm and come out the other side as money and laudatory headlines. It’s a sharp twist on Nora Ephron’s famous “everything is copy” philosophy — everything is content. And the books Ephron created out of her life experiences were her books, but Bamford’s show belongs to Netflix.
Bamford has spoken plainly about her bipolar disorder outside of the series, often in her standup, and recently in a column for The New York Times, in which she detailed how she met and fell in love with her husband, the artist Scott Marvel Cassidy. (At age 43, this was her first long-term relationship.) The character of Maria’s husband on Lady Dynamite is based on and named after him, and the unassuming ease of their banter is the show’s emotional core: it can slip between silly and serious, but never comes off as anything but 100 percent attentive and affectionate. Their relationship is what eventually gets her out of her Hollywood dystopia, and it’s the only plotline that abstains from all the surrealist elements that swirl around everything else.
The love story Bamford wrote in the Times is short, told with matter-of-fact prose, and organized around a plainly stated but harrowing story. It’s a great supplement to the show, which ultimately sneaks something human into a confusing collage of societal critiques. Not that anyone should care about this part, but the love story even somewhat redeems Netflix: Bamford clearly resents the algorithmic approach to content — or at least, she thinks it’s worth challenging and mocking, but she contorted around it to tell a deeply personal story. Describing a show with as many bizarre moving pieces as Lady Dynamite makes it sound like a joke, and watching it in “bingeable fucking installments” is sort of tiring. But it’s the gradual piling and eventual shucking of absurdities that makes the end of the second season so rewarding and, strangely, elegant.
The second season of Lady Dynamite is currently available on Netflix.