Bamford created her own perfect comedy world well before Lady Dynamite. In her singular stand-up, her one-woman/many-voices act has long been as gut-busting as it is incisive. Onstage, she's boldly self-revealing even as she herself seems to shrink away from the many characters she plays: her politely combative family; her meanest classmate from back home in Duluth; a coworker who hates her for no reason; a crowd-pleasing female comic eager to dish about how ladies have a system! when it comes to dating; a chorus of Los Angeles type-As who speak in empty promises and only list all the compromises they expect her to make as their sentences trail off.
Besides being smartly written and brilliantly acted, that panoply she has played shares one common trait: Bamford's characters speak with a fluid confidence that the comic herself rarely exhibits. Her people believe they know everything, especially what's best for Bamford. She slips right into those voices, often to upbraid herself, but seems stricken, sometimes, when coming back to Maria — much of her comedy concerns her bearing up to what everyone else demands of her.
In recent years, her own uncertainty has become even more explicitly her subject. She speaks with affecting candor about her own depression and anxiety. Her biting short-form 2007 web series The Maria Bamford Show peaks with a musical number, “Don't Be Afraid of the Dark,” in which Bamford at last subordinates her characters, leading them in a defiant sing-along about coping with mental illness: “It's all right in the dark! Let professionals answer the voices in your head!” In a plaintive bridge, Bamford breaks the meter to share her diagnosis: “I have Unwanted Thought Syndrome/ A little-known version of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder” that makes her avoid eye contact and knife drawers.
She then confesses, in her own sweetly creaky voice, to having “three separate addictions,” and we see her drinking wine and smoking a cigarette in front of the TV. With rare honesty, Bamford makes art out of her battles with her own brain — comedy that offers relief and even guidance for the rest of us, but without false promises that anything's going to be easy.
Bamford played all the roles on her own show. She's surrounded by a cast of ringers on Lady Dynamite, some of them cast in parts Bamford has mastered, like her mother and father (Mary Kay Place and Ed Begley Jr). This puts the emphasis on Bamford's least assertive character, herself, and leaves her to react to the ridiculousness rather than generate it herself. There are laughs, especially in her scenes with Fred Melamed, as her manager. But something urgent and intimate gets lost. Here, her parents are no longer her mind's heightened perception of her parents — they're just actors with gag lines. We're not in her headspace; we're just watching TV.
So Lady Dynamite plays as an industry-standard single-camera cable comedy, with rote plotting, distracting cameos (Mark McGrath, Jon Cryer), meta self-consciousness and de rigueur tastelessness: The second episode opens with that Adult Swim staple, the parody of a bonkers Japanese commercial, this time for a product called Noodle Pussy. By the fourth, I was ready to bet money that the writers' room had a whiteboard dedicated solely to descriptive nicknames for vaginas (“dirty axe-gash”) that other shows hadn't gotten to yet. (Producer Pam Brady has worked on Family Guy and on several projects with South Park's Trey Parker and Matt Stone.)
Worst of all, Lady Dynamite tends toward the generic. Two episodes concern dates with men who turn out to be trouble for reasons that illustrate no greater truth, either about men or about Bamford. Another works the tired angle of the well-intentioned white comic worrying about saying the wrong thing around black people. That one pays off with Bamford, just before the credits, trumpeting the fact that her show has pulled off a sensitive story about race — and, in her celebration, blithely cutting off an impassioned monologue from screenwriter John Ridley, an Oscar winner for 12 Years a Slave. That glib joke could have come from Sarah Silverman's Comedy Central show or any of the Lindsay Bluth episodes of Arrested Development. Why, in recent years, does the comic archetype of the do-gooding naïf play as selfish and female?
Among the premiere's many low points is a montage of neighbors slamming the door in her face as she invites them to come sit on the bench she's put up in her yard. She's striving to make the neighborhood more friendly, a quixotic endeavor that the show punishes her for with a half-dozen "fuck yous” and, eventually, a minor riot.
In real life, Bamford did put up such a bench, to help herself overcome shyness. She told the New York Times in 2014 that it's been like a bird feeder, but for strangers. She also used to host sing-alongs/stand-up shows at the Eagle Rock Community Center. She wasn't a dope for trying, in her way, to connect with her community.
At one of those events, once, I heard her, offstage, encouraging a young comic by telling her that she just had to keep at it. Such Midwestern positivity is ripe for parody, of course. But Bamford's work has always honored her ethos of perseverance: Keep trying. Keep living. Each day she faces a hostile world that sometimes gets the best of her, but there she is, back on stage, dealing with it on her terms — and leaving audiences helpless with laughter. In Lady Dynamite, the terms don't quite feel like hers. Rather than watch this iteration of the Maria Bamford character discover how to live, we see the sitcom logic of comeuppance and act breaks put her in her place.