‘Lady Dynamite’ Mimics the Experience of Mental Illness — And Thereby Exerts Control Over It

Lady Dynamite is a difficult show to watch if you’re tired, and it’s certainly not a good show to watch if you’re distracted — it’s distracted enough for the both of you. As so many who’ve reviewed it thus far have already noted, its pace and self-fragmentation goes beyond even the dizzying antics of Arrested Development — though it lacks that series’ wonderfully circuitous plotting. But through a cohesion-by-cacophony — which Bamford masters with her animalistically weird voice-work and her switches between introversion and put-on ebullience, and through being Maria Bamford, of course — the show can feel like it’s imitating the ordered unpredictability of bipolar and/or the fixations of OCD. Lady Dynamite doesn’t pander to a speed or cohesion that audiences are used to, but rather mimics that in which Bamford’s comedy has always existed.

The series, Bamford tells Vulture, gets its title from the fact that she has “no energy and so there’s something funny about that.” And beyond the title, the initial concept came from Mitch Hurwitz (it’s created and run by the Arrested Development creator and South Park producer Pam Brady) asking Bamford what one story she’d like to tell if she had her own comedy series — to which she’d responded, one about a nervous breakdown. But while Bamford hasn’t written the series, with her as the centerpiece and with supporting characters who’re either ephemeral or totally lacking in subjectivity, Lady Dynamite proves a close TV-series approximation of Bamford and her own humor, and the way that humor has addressed the paralysis and slow recuperation process in the aftermath of a mental break. (Bamford was diagnosed with Bipolar II — which vacillates from hypomania to depression, with the latter being more frequent — and OCD.)

With its skips between The Past (leading up to an episode of hypomania) to Duluth (where Bamford is experiencing a deep depression and has checked herself into a clinic) and to the Present (where Bamford is on meds and very trepidatiously easing her way back into the Industry), the series is uncompromising in its juggling of times and tones. Like people living with someone with mental illness, it’s the audience that has to recalibrate to understand what can seem like frustrating randomness, and once they do it begins to make sense, though it might still grate. We know the three times, places and states we might see Maria in, but in the vein of the illness that’s determined a great deal of Bamford’s career — both as a hindrance and as an eventual source of inspiration — when they’ll impose themselves on one another often feels like an unknown.

Flavorwire TV contributor Lara Zarum highlighted in her review that Enlightened, Crazy-Ex Girlfriend, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and BoJack Horseman are all comedies about mental illness. But while I agree that Lady Dynamite is undermined by occasional cliché and thus doesn’t in all senses live up to its critically adored uniqueness — I do think that it’s the most personal glimpse we’ve gotten into mental-illness-as-comedy, given its leaps from Maria’s past to Maria’s Duluth to Maria’s present. Sure, it’s mostly only autobiographically performed by Bamford, and is otherwise a fictionalized biography — a version of her life envisioned by a group of talents imitating her voice, whose imitations she then imitates back into her own inimitable voice. (The show’s tendency to dizzy seems to have rubbed off on me after a weekend of bingeing.)

But the very process by which the show was created is informed by the necessities and self- awareness involved with functioning within mental illness. The character’s need to avoid too much ambition speaks to Maria’s openness about the slight boundaries she still needs to keep up between her life and her work based on it. The comedian told Vulture that they’d agreed on a 12-hour turnaround between shoots — she couldn’t do the standard 15-hour day because her therapist stressed the cruciality of sleep for dealing with bipolar (and specifically for both Bamford and her character, bipolar II). Likewise, she quite frankly says she chose not the write the show herself because she didn’t have the “willingness or the wherewithal…or the energy level to write.”

This is the first example we have of a memoir-ish comedy of the sort, where the character grappling with mental illness is largely a reflection of someone’s actual self-reflection. There may be a sense of cloying gimmickry to how the show goes meta and lays out how it’ll visually depict each of these states, when Patton Oswalt suggests that she use “color as a time signifier,” and then when we’re shown Bamford sorting through the scenes’ color schemes, saying that across a panoply of potential unflattering depictions of the mental institution milieux, one is is “too grey” another is “too yellow,” another needs “more blue,” then “less blue” then says they should “split the difference” on the blue.

But at the same time, it speaks to the ways other comedy shows — like Kimmy Schmidt, for example — successfully manipulate visuals to maintain comedy while suggesting a troubled mental state. With mental illness being explored through TV comedy so well and relatively often these days — perhaps to an extent more dynamically than it ever can in drama, which often opts to render sadness with sadness à la the monotone recent Sarah Silverman film, I Smile Back — the breakdown of the specific strategies of sending a visual cue about a specific state without becoming drama is engaging. That it’s Bamford herself doing it (of course, with the visions of a team eager to, knowing her own stated time-and-energy limitations, create the vision with her guidance) is pretty cool. Here, she’s essentially designing her own visualization of a past that’d previously hindered her and now is a story she needs to tell.

Mental illness may be seem good fodder for art (in a way that can be detrimental) because it often is a heightened version of emotional experiences with which we’re all familiar, but the meta-ness of this show is not purposelessly meta, its randomness not so random as to be random: Hurwitz’s Development-esque energy, though less clever than Development, here bears more of a formal foundation in concept. This is a show about someone learning to put their life back together by making art about the thing that can tear it apart — based on and performed by a comedian who had that very experience. “Whenever I found out that someone, whether it’s a public figure or somebody in my personal life told me that they had experiences similar to mine, I felt so much relief,” Bamford says.

In 2011, Maria Bamford had a nervous breakdown, halted her career and checked herself into the psych ward. This is not just the story of someone pulling themselves out – but of feeling like they’ve already done so enough, for the time being, to make some good art that might just let other people know that, if they find themselves making vision boards in a monochromatic room managed by condescending voices, so too was Maria Bamford. Though suffering from mental illness often feels like one’s selfhood is wholly at the mercy of an alternate, imposing selfhood, Bamford’s fictionalization of herself — through the words of people imitating her — is a strange, inspiring exemplar of the one space in which one can totally win control over mental illness: the ability to shape it and force the mercurial thing into a permanent, unchanging narrative.