The divine and unusual comedian Maria Bamford has a brilliant new series, "Lady Dynamite," premiering Friday on Netflix; as is often the case with comedians who front sitcoms, it has something to do with her actual life. But that is the only case here that is often the case.
Created by Mitchell Hurwitz and Pam Brady, it is cheerful, dark, surreal, profane, aspirational, meta-fictional and packed with people playing versions of themselves or other people entirely (or playing versions of themselves playing other people entirely); it plays with visual and verbal puns, with moods and acting styles and moves around in time and dimension. And while these are elements of many modern comedies – it owes something to "It's Garry Shandling's Show," "Curb Your Enthusiasm," "30 Rock," "The Sarah Silverman Program," Hurwitz's "Arrested Development" and the cracked spirit of Adult Swim – I have never seen them assembled in quite this way, or with quite so much gusto.
"Lady Dynamite" is right. When things aren't actually exploding -- which sometimes happens, literally -- they feel liable to; there is always the potential for mayhem, for one reality to intrude on another. A living room might suddenly become a Japanese game show, a person become, briefly, a sheep, or a family a family band.
Bamford has talked and joked publicly about her experience with bipolar disorder -- which is very much part of the story here, as well -- and there is something in the show's swings of mood that echoes the diagnosis. Like her stand-up, a thing of shifting gears and channeled voices, it's a fast-moving, highly ordered representation of a disordered mind.
"I'm a 45-year-old woman who's clearly sun-damaged," she says, by way of to-the-camera introduction, having been pulled out of a split-screen reverie in which she imagines herself the star of a hair-product commercial (which features her gleefully crying things like "I feel French!" and "I just had my tubes tied -- at my age it's not safe to have children!" and also sharing spaghetti with a bicycle wheel). "My skin is getting softer but my bones are jutting out, so I'm half soft, half sharp, and I have a show. What a great late in life opportunity!"
As Bamford describes its structure to Patton Oswalt (playing himself playing a policeman) the series takes place in three periods, "not just when my career is blowing up, but just after I blew up when I broke down," and just after the breakdown, when she is back in Hollywood tentatively beginning again, thinking about doing "stand-up in a bookstore or alone in my living room or a vintage eyeglass shop." Her ardent, hapless manager (Fred Melamed), who has acquired a "Hollywood power desk" and "sexy Hollywood power boots" in her absence, has bigger ideas.
Each section has its own look and tone – color-saturated and hysterical pre-breakdown, more or less "normal," though liable to slip, for the present day. (This is worked out within the context of the show.) The Duluth passages, which feature Mary Kay Place and Ed Begley Jr. as her parents and Mo Collins as her sister, are washed out and blueish, and played in the modulated tones of an indie film.
Bamford is wonderful throughout. With her querulous way of speaking and her way of walking on the balls of her feet, like a child keeping its balance, she can seem fragile and strange. But, like some comedians less affected by chemistry, she is not self-loathing; this is a show about putting the blown-up back together. It is rich with hope and, for all the weirdness, moving.
When: Anytime, starting Friday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)