Halfway through the first episode of Maria Bamford’s new Netflix series, Lady Dynamite, Bamford, playing a version of herself, installs a park bench in front of her Los Angeles home. Playing a cop, Patton Oswalt begins to explain that she needs a permit for the bench, but stops when he sees two crewmembers carrying a fake brick wall. “Are you kidding me?” he says. “Maria, you’re gonna have a stage with a red brick wall behind it?” Someone yells “cut.” “This is what I was talking about,” Oswalt says. “She’s doing standup in the show.”
The gag is one of many in which Lady Dynamite draws attention to itself as a Hollywood production. The series, which Netflix released on Friday, is based on Bamford’s very real struggles with both her acting career and her mental health, topics she’s dealt with on her 2007 web series, The Maria Bamford Show, and in her standup specials, like 2012’s The Special Special Special!, also available on Netflix (she shot it in her living room with an audience of two: her parents). If Bamford were a band, Lady Dynamite would be her special-issue anthology — an expertly produced box set of material that sums up Bamford’s decades-long comedy career, and that devotees will recognize from earlier bits.
For fans of Bamford’s surreal, schizophrenic standup, Lady Dynamite will not disappoint. The show hops between “The Present,” where Maria is filming a new TV series based on her life; to a super-saturated “Past,” where Maria, off her meds, is the face of a new ad campaign for a Target-like discount department store; to a grey, washed-out “Duluth,” where Maria is living with her parents (Ed Begley, Jr. and Mary Kay Place) in Minnesota and checking in and out of a psych ward. Each of these periods corresponds to a real phase in Bamford’s life — she did a series of Target ads in 2010, and spent time living in an inpatient psychiatric unit and with her parents in Duluth. And she really did put a park bench in front of her home in the Eagle Rock neighborhood of Los Angeles.
Tonally, the show shares a lot of DNA with Arrested Development, whose creator, Mitch Hurwitz, also helmed Lady Dynamite, along with Pam Brady. (Bamford also had a recurring role in AD’s Netflix-produced fourth season.) Both comedies have a surreal, fun house sensibility, wacky to the point of deranged. Maria’s new agent gives her a red motorbike with a sidecar as a gift after their first meeting — then angrily insists Maria ride it. “I have a car,” Maria meekly protests as she climbs on. “I guess I’ll just leave it here.”
Like Arrested Development, Lady Dynamite rewards a good ear: Musical cues reference little jokes within the world of the show, like the brand of Maria’s favorite hair products, “Latrisse DuVois (by Gary!).” The upbeat, jazzy score sounds a lot like Arrested Development’s, and the show’s original music includes the ironic refrain, “I don’t know what I’m doing/ More than half of the time.” Sound effects are exaggerated, animals occasionally speak, and Maria’s realtor (June Diane Raphael), agent (Ana Gasteyer), and life coach (Jenny Slate) are all named Karen Grisham.
Lady Dynamite assembles a stellar crew of game performers, including Fred Melamed as Maria’s manager; Mo Collins as her sister; and Bridget Everett and Lennon Parham as her friends. Like many Netflix series, Lady Dynamite is also heavy on the guest stars, with Judd Apatow, Mark McGrath, John Mulaney, Mira Sorvino, Jon Cryer, Brian Posehn, and John Ridley appearing like neighbors popping up over a backyard fence.
But for all that, there’s something disappointingly bland about Lady Dynamite. Bamford’s comedy may be truly unique, but adapting her material to a 12-episode sitcom season seems to have flattened it. Surrealist comedy on TV is nothing new — it’s been around practically as long as the medium itself — and neither are dark comedies with a bright palette that deal with mental illness: Enlightened, Crazy-Ex Girlfriend, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and BoJack Horseman all fit the bill. As fodder for contemporary comedy, mental illness and the casual cruelty of Hollywood — not to mention thinly veiled autobiography — have been done death.
Of course, that doesn’t mean they can’t be done again, and done well, and in Bamford’s case, she’s already done them to far greater effect. The Maria Bamford Show, a one-woman web series that Bamford taped while living at her parents’ house in Duluth, captures Bamford’s manic, loopy energy and the sweetness at the heart of her comedy better than the slick Lady Dynamite. The episodes are also short, with most clocking in at less than 5 minutes, while the Netflix episodes range from just under half an hour to a bloated 35 minutes.
Much of what makes Bamford’s comedy unique is its form, whether it’s a lo-fi, home-video-like web series, a special taped in her living room, or a standup set in which the comedian flips between different voices and personas like an antsy kid changing radio stations. Here, that tic is translated to the time-jump device, but more often than not it’s just confusing. “People can deal with the time jump,” Oswalt, as himself, tells Maria in the first episode, “just don’t make it jarring.” The line is meant to be clever and meta, but the time jump is jarring, and pointing that out doesn’t necessarily make it work. And over 12 episodes, the clichés pile up surprisingly fast: there’s the phony, superficial Hollywood agent; the angry-man-freaking-out-in-a-batting-cage bit; the inappropriately intimate speech at a funeral.
The series will surely delight die-hard Bamford fans, but I’m inclined to recommend any of Bamford’s earlier bites over this heavy spread. Lady Dynamite has too many ingredients, and they spoil what was already a perfectly tasty dish.