If you haven’t already seen Netflix’s newest sitcom, Lady Dynamite, light a candle and say a prayer before you begin streaming. I realize I’m about to sound completely cliché but this show is off-the-wall wacky, hilarious, and still emotionally raw. Now for transparency’s sake, the language is at times crass, outright vulgar even, but what you get out of this 30 Rock/Arrested Development/Curb Your Enthusiasm triangular sitcom love-child is sheer brilliance. A show within a show filled with flashbacks, present day and sort of half-flashbacks, Lady Dynamite juxtaposes the over-the-top comedy of star Maria Bamford with her personal reality of mental illness and bipolar disorder.
Bamford’s whacked-out brand of self-deprecating alternative comedy combined with her eclectic friends, 1980s time-warped agent and celebrity cameos all prepare you for the “Duluth” flashback scenes which are set between an outpatient mental health facility and her childhood home. The subtlety of Duluth features Bamford in pajamas for days on end, participating in semi-therapeutic group exercises and creating personal goals while managing a sense of normalcy in a place that’s usually a taboo subject.
Bamford’s character, aptly named Maria Bamford, often jokes about her recovery, casually mentioning that she’s hopped up on anti-psychotic meds, attempting to repair multiple damaged relationships or the need to stop her incessant, unnecessary apologies. It is in these moments that the audience is presented with a front row seat of what it’s like to live with a mental illness. Yet, the most deeply resonating moments are when she laughs about contemplating suicide 18 hours a day. Living with bipolar disorder means wavering between manic or hypomanic phases which usually feel pretty good. It’s when the depression hits that often times lands the individual in an ER or psychiatric facility. The depressive side is terrifying for both the patient and those surrounding them, however Lady Dynamite offers us a sense of healing. Seeing Maria’s character is happy and determined in the present it ensures us of her survival from the darkest days of depression and her attempt to reclaim her life, career and friends.
While mental illness, particularly those with more severe symptoms like bipolar, is nothing to joke about, this show doesn’t mock mental illness at all. Rather, it provides every day, relatable situations as seen from the viewpoint of someone with a mental illness. When you struggle with mental illness, you feel as if you’re being pulled in 100 different directions, trying to say yes and please everybody because you know the guilt of saying “no” can trigger negative symptoms, all while trying to focus on yourself. It’s incredibly difficult to do and emotionally draining. Maria Bamford knows this better than anyone. From the comments of her friends, family, agent, and people she meets, mental illness is sometimes blamed, laughed at or mocked out of sheer ignorance. Bamford’s character is constantly being manipulated by her surroundings and she knows it, almost to the point that her illness is being taken advantage of but it doesn’t bring her down. In fact, it’s never triggers a mental health crisis.
Lady Dynamite makes me want to scream into a sponge too when I feel overwhelmed, but not in a bad way. What Maria Bamford has done is bring the struggles of mental illness to the public and create social discourse hidden inside a colorful world of surreal characters and moments. Yes, Lady Dynamite does make mental illness seem a bit more fun than it really is but that itself provides hope.