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TV Review: ‘Lady Dynamite’

With:

Maria Bamford, Fred Melamed, Mary Kay Place, Ed Begley, Jr., Patton Oswalt, Ana Gasteyer, Jon Cryer, Mira Sorvino, Brandon Routh, June Diane Raphael, Lennon Parham, Adam Pally, Mo Collins, Dean Cain, Sarah Silverman, Tig Notaro, Jenny Slate

Lady Dynamite” is the kind of show that could only exist during this boom time in television. It’s a finely crafted niche comedy with a very specific outlook and tone — thus it bears similarities to any number of streaming half-hours, as well as those on adventurous cable networks. And yet this excellent Netflix series has a subversive and ultimately sweet flavor all its own.

The show spends a fair amount of time offering a deceptively serious examination of how the entertainment-industry machine, without even trying that hard, tends to crush anyone in its path, especially those with a distinctive vision or sincere beliefs. Maria Bamford, who stars as a character with the same name, and co-creators Mitchell Hurwitz and Pam Brady have quite a bit to say about mental illness, friendship, and the difficulty of forging real connections in a confusing world, and in the first four episodes, Bamford makes for an unpredictable but winning tour guide. The actress and comedian, whose presence has rarely been used as well as it is here, manages the neat trick of being both believably guileless and winningly sharp.

It might be tempting to dismiss the star and her show by using condescending words like “quirky” and “odd,” but that would be a mistake. The comedy may have an experimental streak, but it’s also quite disciplined in its storytelling, and, despite some loopy segues, it’s matter-of-fact about the ways in which the character’s bipolar disorder — as well as the mixed messages of Hollywood’s disorienting funhouse — can end up fracturing reality. Truthful examinations of such challenges require leaving linear construction and strict logic behind, and “Lady Dynamite” needs neither to score smart points.

Using the phrase “surreal deconstruction” to describe a show might scare potential viewers away, so perhaps it’s better to say that the series wastes few opportunities to celebrate dopey but enjoyable clichés and wittily pick apart pernicious tropes. Mixed into the silly and more serious moments are quiet observations about the costs of coping with social anxiety and the many identities people assume in order to make it through the trials of daily life.

The debut season’s 12 episodes veer from the heartbreaking to the bizarre, but they have a few elements in common. In most installments, Maria visits her well-intentioned but clueless manager, Bruce (the delightful Fred Melamed). He tries to guide her career while paying lip service to her goals of being “a good person” and “making people happy,” while also undergoing his own hapless trials. There are flashbacks to her past, and to time spent in Duluth, where she lived with her parents — played with perfect timing by the well-matched and dryly enjoyable Ed Begley Jr. and Mary Kay Place — while undergoing treatment. The quietly resigned Duluth scenes are shot through with a grayish pallor that makes visible the flat sadness and low-key humiliations of this era in Maria’s life.

Many other scenes, including parodies of commercials and music videos, are brightly and almost frantically colorful. But like “BoJack Horseman,” another candy-colored Netflix program layered with strands of existential dread, “Lady Dynamite” uses knowing irony to wring comedy from its meta commentary on the excesses and cruelties of the industry. In one episode, Maria points out the racist premise of a sitcom she’s appearing in, only to have the producers revise the show so that, in its new incarnation, it’s profoundly sexist. “Lady Dynamite” doesn’t have to overtly point out how all the strivers in Hollywood who are not white guys end up pitted against each other; the wry storytelling does that on its own.

The entire show gains a great deal of energy from a varied array of game guest actors, including Mira Sorvino, Patton Oswalt, Ana Gasteyer, Brandon Routh, and Bridget Everett, all of whom appear delighted to be in Bamford’s playfully serious orbit.

A TV cousin of “Lady Dynamite” is Comedy Central’s “Review,” which also tells the disturbing yet hilarious story of a likable protagonist whose blind spots frequently lead to ever-spiraling problems. As with “Review’s” Forrest MacNeil, Maria’s saga tends to make viewers brace themselves for whatever social or career disaster is around the next corner; she continually tries to assert herself, but her Achilles’ heel is her frequent inability to set clear boundaries. That dynamic sometimes leads to contrived moments: There’s a depth, kindness and pathos to Maria that can make the more cartoonish characters who drop in feel like imports from another program.

While the show is a fine addition to the current wave of smart, strange comedies, it’s not unreasonable to wonder if “Lady Dynamite” will end up having the staying power and cumulative impact of shows like “Review” and “BoJack.” “Community” had some spectacular meta episodes, but there were quite a few that fell into predicable ruts as well.

That said, the first few entries of “Lady Dynamite” are often as resilient and open-hearted as its lead character. Maria’s quest for self-acceptance, and her attempts to be kind to others as she learns to like herself, undergird the show and give it a strong center. Despite all of her painful trials, she remains curious about life and the strange beauty that often co-exists with pain.

Ultimately, “Lady Dynamite” presents such an amusing combination of humane wisdom and goofy wit that it quickly establishes itself as must-see fare. But don’t binge on this distinctive concoction. It’s best savored over time.

Popular on Variety

TV Review: 'Lady Dynamite'

(Netflix; Fri. May 20)

Production:

Filmed in Los Angeles by Wounded Poodle and The Hurwitz Company for Netflix.

Crew:

Executive producers, Maria Bamford, Pam Brady, Mitch Hurwitz, Kristen Zolner, Andy Weil, Jane Wiseman; director, Hurwitz; writers, Brady, Hurwitz; camera, Heimo Ritzinger; production designer, Dan Butts; editor, Daniel Haworth; music, David Schwartz; costume designer, Kirston Mann; casting, Wendy O’Brien. 30 MIN.

Cast:

Maria Bamford, Fred Melamed, Mary Kay Place, Ed Begley, Jr., Patton Oswalt, Ana Gasteyer, Jon Cryer, Mira Sorvino, Brandon Routh, June Diane Raphael, Lennon Parham, Adam Pally, Mo Collins, Dean Cain, Sarah Silverman, Tig Notaro, Jenny Slate

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