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November 15, 2017

Oddly comforting hilarity in ‘Lady Dynamite’

('Lady Dynamite' Official Facebook Page)

(‘Lady Dynamite’ Official Facebook Page)

The ending of each “Lady Dynamite” episode is punctuated by a drum roll and a resounding chorus that proclaims, “I don’t know what I’m doing more than half of the time,” the opening and eponymous lyric of a track from Dean Martin’s 1972 album “Dino.”

It’s a beautiful declaration of cluelessness that might resonate deeply with many college students. Much like this well-chosen lyric, Maria Bamford’s Netflix series reclaims the experience of feeling out of control and artfully throws the experience back at the world with intentionally overwrought dramatic and comedic flare.

“Lady Dynamite” is inspired by events from Los Angeles-based stand-up comedian Maria Bamford’s own life, and uses a nonlinear narrative with three different time periods to tell her story. An important part of the series is Maria’s diagnosis with Bipolar II, a mental illness characterized by episodes of depression and hypomania.

The timeline of “Lady Dynamite” flashes between Maria’s life in L.A. prior to her mental breakdown, her time spent recovering in her hometown of Duluth, Minnesota, and her present-day return to L.A. where she continues her career as a stand-up comedian and attempts to avoid making the same mistakes she has made in the past.

The show uniquely packages together comedy and morals. Episodes of “Lady Dynamite” are colorful modern-day fables that outshine the tiredness of unrealistic, clear-cut morality in favor of more gratifyingly realistic lessons.

Maria learns and relearns important things: don’t overcommit in order to please the folks around you, dealing with another person’s baggage in a relationship is more intimidating than dealing with your own, and – most importantly – don’t sacrifice your own mental health and well-being to avoid disappointing others.

This final lesson rings most true when considering the amount of characters in the show who have high expectations for Maria. The comedian’s past is riddled with conditional affection; people who only love the qualities of Maria from which they can personally benefit.

Whether it’s Maria’s agent, life coach, or director, they all have financial stakes in the productive perks of Maria’s hypomania. Even Maria’s fiancé (someone from whom unconditional love is expected) doesn’t stick around when it’s hinted that her hypomania also comes with depression. While these characters desert Maria when things get tough, there are also people who remain with Maria through the ups and the downs, especially her parents – and her pugs.

It is clear that Bamford is widely supported and unconditionally loved by many members of the stand-up comedy community, as so many of them are either cast members or guest stars on “Lady Dynamite.” The list includes Ana Gasteyer, Jenny Slate, Patton Oswalt, Sarah Silverman, Tig Notaro, the Lucas brothers, Judd Apatow and John Mulaney.

Viewers have taken issue with the second episode of “Lady Dynamite,” in which Maria goes on a date with a bisexual man who was formerly addicted to methamphetamine. He is portrayed as untrustworthy and promiscuous, both of which are unfortunately common narrative tropes about bisexual people.

It is difficult to tell whether this depiction is intentionally highlighting the media stereotypes bisexual people face in order to critique those stereotypes or if it is just using bisexuality as an unjust short cut to create an unreliable character.

The latter seems more likely, which is especially disappointing, considering the scarcity of bisexual characters on TV. In a show that is otherwise conscious of stigma, it was a bit disheartening to encounter it in only the second episode.

One of the main lessons Maria learns in “Lady Dynamite” is that you might have the best intentions and still end up hurting others with your actions. While it’s a moral that initially registers as depressing, the show takes hold of this cruel irony and animates it for us, giving us the redemption of laughter.

At the very end of the season, Maria’s cheerful voiceover muses, “Life. What a kick in the pants!” a quirky expression that underplays the drudgery in favor of the playful. Even if life is “a kick in the pants,” whether that’s good or bad, “Lady Dynamite” is definitely kicking back.

Chloe Heidepriem can be reached at cheidepriem@umass.edu.

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