May 21, 2016

Channel Surfing: Lady Dynamite - "Pilot"

Maria Bamford
Welcome to a new column called Channel Surfing, in which I sporadically look at current TV shows and talk about them. These are not ones that I care to write weekly recaps for and are instead reflections either on the episode, the series, or particular moments. This will hopefully help to share personal opinions as well as discover entertainment on the outer pantheon that I feel is well worth checking out, or in some cases, shows that are weird enough to talk about, but should never be seen.
In 2010, Louis C.K. premiered with his surreal comedy/drama/surreal experiment Louie in which he played a fictionalized version of himself. While it has helped to establish him as one of the strangest and most authentic voices in modern serialized programming, it is unassuming how much it influenced the decade to follow with comedians doing anti-comedy programs about their careers. While it could be rooted back to the 90's and Seinfeld, Louie better embodies the bold, artistic career choices of the recent crop of shows - which includes Marc Maron's Maron, Zach Galifianakis' Baskets, and Netflix's latest Lady Dynamite. Starring Maria Bamford and written in part by Arrested Development creator Mitchell Hurwitz, it is a show that takes its cues from Louie so proudly that it even does its best to not just be an imitation. Frankly, it's also a lot harder to totally grasp what is going on with the show.
Bamford stars as a fictionalized version of herself. Having made a great stand-up career by doing comedy based around her mental illness, she has turned to Netflix to tell a story with a similar, if uneven, tone. Whereas her routines tend to be short and punchy, Lady Dynamite's weakness is that it has to sustain an entire episode and even series. The joke of doing absurd things because of your mentality can often wear thin. However, Hurwitz (who borrows a lot of aesthetics from Arrested Development - including voice over narrator) manages to make things immediately aloof and unsettling without diving into discomfort. 
The opening alone may be among the more disarming introductions to a show like this. Bamford is introduced in a stylized and fantastical daydream before cutting back to a droll and empty life. As the minutes click before the credits start, she resumes her life before jumping enthusiastically in front of an exploding van. The show manages to combine the disjointed pieces into something that is at least a fascinating exploration of fourth wall breaking. The show manages to be self-aware, with many of the supporting players (Patton Oswalt, Brian Posehn) even providing production notes midway through a scene. In an era where 21 Jump Street does its best to point out reboot and sequel flaws, this is an overused trope. However, it is a smaller piece in a bigger, more perplexing puzzle.
The show is a study of Bamford's mental illness. Much like Baskets, the comedy at times comes from the lack of humor, such as Bamford playing a child version of herself as she recalls her past. The story also has a confusing yet intriguing time jump device that thrusts her story to before she became ill all the way through her current condition. Mark McGrath is there for whatever reason. With bright title cards to distinguish transitions, the entire pilot does a thankless job of establishing a sugarcoated series to a very serious issue. Much like Bamford's stand-up, the humor outweighs any of the problematic aspects. There's very little that is a revelation about her condition, but it's interesting that a show like this exists.
The question isn't so much if it is a sustainable model. After all, Baskets managed to be one of the most bittersweet new shows of 2016. The better question is if Bamford has the charisma to make a show like this work. Hurwitz has proven his capabilities, but the first episode is a little jarring due to how inexperienced Bamford is as an actor. It still manages to be a compelling and often inspired package. It's just such a vibrant theme that the chances of it making for a fascinating long term show may prove to be a challenge. I'm sure that Bamford will find her own capabilities in time. Most comedians in the golden age of experimental TV have. It's just that her ambitions feel like they could go either way after one episode.

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