Quick Review: Maria Bamford's New Show Lady Dynamite

I just watched the first episode of Maria Bamford's new show Lady Dynamite. Writer and Director Mitchell Hurwitz is trying too hard to replicate the pace and tone of his previous show Arrested Development and is not letting Maria's personality shine through enough. It's way too much Hurwitz and not enough Maria. The scenes where her quirkiness shines through are the best. The scenes where she she plays "the straight man" to everyone else's over-the-top quirkiness nearly always fall flat—except for Patton Oswalt. He's great. And Maria is generally great too...when she's allowed to do her thing. If the show had a motto it would be: "LET'S BE AS ZANY AS POSSIBLE! TO THE MAX!" If zany were funny, this would be fine, but in this case it is not. Bamford is one of my favorite comedians, so this is disappointing.

Here's what works:

  • The opening spoof of a 60's hair commercial which is really Maria's daydream
  • Patton Oswalt breaking the 4th wall. By doing this they deconstruct a cliche by using a cliche (that is, criticizing the use of interjecting standup comedy into a comedian's TV show by using the old "go meta by breaking the 4th wall" trick). The meta-stuff isn't what's funny—Oswalt's and Bamford's interactions are what is funny. Funny is funny.
  • The flashbacks to Bamfords psych therapy in Minnesota are generally great. The tone of these scenes are much smaller in scope. They mainly focus on how people manipulate each other and hurt each other without knowing it—aspects of life that Bamford typically explores in her comedy.
  • Using Bamford's actual life story. The more this show focuses on a significantly mentally ill woman and her road recovery and professional success, the better and funnier it will be.
What Doesn't work:
  • Her supporting cast. They are not funny. Almost every single supporting member seems like an excuse to be as big of a clown (or real-life cartoon character) as possible. I suppose this wouldn't matter so much if they were actually funny. But they are not funny.
  • The non sequitur plot twists. This show seems to be trying so hard to be intentionally random. Get that? See how that's ironic. The "randomness" is so orchestrated that it's distracting. A park bench that become a central plot point? One of those Italian scooter things with a side car? Sugar Ray's Mark McGrath? Why are they doing this?
  • The Arrested Development-esque editing/cinematography/jokes/pacing. I love Arrested Development, but it doesn't work here. Maria's show should shift itself to Maria's pacing and idiosyncratic worldview. There's too much of Hurwitz in this and it's cluttering up everything, especially Bamford's brilliance.
  • Fred Melamed's performance as Maria's manager is off-putting because it seems like he's trying to capture the bumbling, needy, and oblivious mania of Jeffrey Tambor's George Bluth.
  • The profuse amount of swearing is off-putting. I watch a lot of things with swearing in it, but the way the c-word and f-word are continually implemented makes me cringe. Like everything else in this show, they seem to think that merely being over-the-top is enough to get laughs, so let's just swear profusely! It's like an in-experienced standup's use of genitalia, sex, and body fluid jokes because they know it will get them an easy laugh. But swear words shouted at the top of your lungs is not funny by default. There has to be something more to the character and to the scene to give those words weight and meaning. Hint to Mitchell Hurwitz: go watch a Quentin Tarantino film.
But here's the thing: I'm going to keep watching Lady Dynamite. This is Maria Bamford, who I think is brilliant. I can only hope everything she brings to the table as a performer and writer is allowed to take center stage as the episodes progress. Hurwitz, on the other hand, is going to have to re-convince me of his brilliance. I can almost see Bamford handing the reigns over to her showrunner/writer/director/producer in scene after scene, trusting his experience in making TV shows at the expense of her own comedic sensibilities. Here's to hoping Hurwitz realizes it's his job to get out of the way and let his star turn into a super nova.

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