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A mesmerizing Lady Dynamite dips into trust issues

Maria Bamford, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson (Screenshot: Netflix)
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After a slightly bumpy premiere, Lady Dynamite bounces back with a captivating episode, seamlessly constructed and performed, and building on ideas introduced in “Wet Raccoon” without treading tediously over old ground. One of those ideas is Maria’s decision to devote more energy to her home life and new partner, with “Hypnopup” delving into one of the biggest issues that can crop up in a new partnership of any kind: trust.


As Maria and Scott unwind over the ultimate intimacy (fondue and financial correspondence), she’s shocked to learn he’s tens of thousands of dollars in debt, and even more shocked by calm he is about it. “How are you not freaking out every minute of every day?” she blurts out.

Mary Kay Place, Maria Bamford (Screenshot: Lady Dynamite)

Scott’s as respectful of her concerns as he can be while making it clear the real concerns should be his, not hers. “Don’t worry about this,” he tells her. “This is my debt, not your debt. I’ll handle it.” But Maria can’t not worry about it. She’s built to worry about it, not only because she’s had financial crises of her own, but because it triggers an unease that dates all the way back to her teenage years in Duluth.

“It’s not like compound interest adds up,” Scott says, brushing off the minor issue of his $45,000.00 student debt. (Well, that’s what it was when he stopped paying. Now it’s over seventy thousand dollars.) Compound interest does add up. Ignored debt adds up. Frustrations, fears, and repressed patterns of behavior add up. Despite her enthusiasm for 12-step groups, Maria’s got some long-accumulated emotional deficits to rebuild, with interest.

Witnessing the lack of trust in her parents’ marriage, teenaged Maria vowed never to be like Marilyn and Joel. Instead, she wants to trust everyone! All the time! It works out great! Except when it doesn’t! The ugly underside of Maria’s hasty, easy trust is the uneasy speed with which she rescinds it. Shortly after she entrusts her personal and professional finances (and Scott’s, too) to Emily Bezzler (Judy Greer, who does the best sad-eyed acting ever seen on Lady Dynamite, excluding Bert), a convicted embezzler and fellow member of Debtors Anonymous, money goes missing, and so does Maria’s trust.

Judy Greer (Screenshot: Lady Dynamite)

Defending herself, Em asks, “How well do you know Scott?” Maria’s furious at the implication, but the bookkeeper’s disclosure of Scott’s former financial troubles sticks with her, and her buried misgivings bubble up like hot cheese overflowing a fondue pot. (That’s not how fondue pots work. If your cheese is bubbling like Scott and Maria’s, please consult a fonduologist.) Haunted by the knowledge that Scott’s car was once repossessed, he’s in debt to to three banks, and he never returned the VHS of St. Elmo’s Fire to Blockbuster, Maria accuses him of stealing from her.

Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Maria Bamford (Screenshot: Lady Dynamite)

Because her parents not only failed to demonstrate what a trusting relationship looks like, but pointedly taught Maria never to trust a partner, she can’t envision what real trust looks like. She never stops to consider, for example, what immense trust Scott is putting in her instincts by going along, however hesitantly, with her hiring Em Bezzler seconds after meeting her. Lady Dynamite’s performances can be delightfully overblown, but throughout “Hypnopup,” Ólafur Darri Ólafsson grounds his scenes in winning realism, whether he’s worrying about Maria’s well-being, angry at her accusation, or just asking, “Who saves receipts?”

Maria commits herself to trusting people without trying to assess whether they’re trustworthy. Luckily, Em wasn’t -bezzling; she’s been hypnotized by her dog Evan, a.k.a. Seven, a.k.a Hypnopup, into forgetting the number seven and unbalancing all her books. Even more luckily, Scott’s more than trustworthy; he’s forgiving. But Maria compulsively bestows her trust on people she should know to be capricious, self-serving, or unreliable.

In the flash-forward, she’s entrusted her career to (and abandoned her voice for) her notoriously narcissistic agent in exchange for the promise of an innovative, intimate series centered around Maria and her personal history. The second she’s on set, Karen’s promises are in the trash, along with the original script, and her version of a nurturing, healthy workplace is, “Just learn the fucking rewrite.” Maria’s groundbreaking show telling her life story is suddenly a sci-fi series written, directed, edited, and marketed by Karen Grisham.

Maria Bamford, Scott Marvel Cassidy, Marilyn Bamford, Joel Bamford (Screenshot: Lady Dynamite)

Lady Dynamite’s casting drives home the cruelty of this transformation. (A helpful note: In these reviews, “Maria” refers to Lady Dynamite’s lead character, “Bamford” refers to the actor playing a fictionalized version of herself, and let’s call the character Maria plays on Maria Bamford Is Nuts Maria-as-Maria. We’re going meta-meta-meta, not for the first time.) That’s Scott Marvel Cassidy, Bamford’s real-life husband, playing an actor named Lance Banner who plays Maria’s Scott in the MuskVision series Maria Bamford Is Nuts. Marilyn Bamford appears as Cheryl Streep (sister to Meryl), who plays Marilyn Bamford, Maria’s mother (who in Lady Dynamite is played by Mary Kay Place. And Joel Bamford plays Craig Gregg, who plays Maria’s on-screen father, Joel Bamford, portrayed in Lady Dynamite by Kurt Braunohler.


“It was a gas seeing professional actors playing the human people from my life!” Maria burbles in her fluid, phony, contractually mandated Diane Winterbottom Monte voice as Lady Dynamite turns reality inside out and outside in. Bamford is surrounded by the people closest to her in the world, but the show that is obviously a stand-in for Lady Dynamite (right down to its colorful credit sequence and its musical sting) forces her to tell someone else’s story in a voice that’s not even her own.

Maria’s trust is fragile, ready to shatter in an instant. That’s not just because her parents taught her not to trust, or because her childhood friends have proven untrustworthy. (In addition to Susan, Kristen Rydholm shows up again in “Hypnopup,” and it turns out that the person Maria describes as her high-school tormentor was also a trusted friend, brought along on Maria’s secret mission to spy on her father.) It’s because Maria’s trust in herself is fragile. She’s willing to sacrifice her most distinctive comic asset, her voice, to work with Karen Grisham. She second-guesses Scott because she second-guesses her own decision to move in with him, asking Bert, “How long are you supposed to wait?”

Action on the set of Maria Bamford Is Nuts is riddled with editing jumps. It’s tempting to interpret these split seconds of disconnect as symptoms of an impending mental-health crisis, but Lady Dynamite indirectly addresses that by having Scott ask the same question in the present. But as she reminds him, her irritability and defensiveness—like her enthusiasm and her occasional self-doubt—aren’t necessarily symptoms of illness. They’re normal human emotions, ones both she and Scott have to learn to trust, just as they have to learn to trust each other. And, like Bert and Maria, they’re willing to do the work.


Stray observations

  • “Now, eat your sundae, you won’t feel a thing.” Maria’s parents are being played even darker this season, and so far their marriage mirrors Susan and Paul’s last season.
  • Andy Samberg as Bruce Ben-Bacharach and Maria-as-Maria speaking in her Diane Winterbottom Monte voice has to be the breathiest, most mellifluous, phoniest conversation ever captured on camera.
  • “And that is why I always use thumbtacks to secure my PostIt Notes.” What lost opportunity lurks behind that Bruce Ben-Bacharach gem, I wonder?
  • The lilting, sentimental song playing that I presume is called “Heartstrings (S/Evan’s Theme), plays at “Hypnopup”’s end, too. Stick around through the credits to hear the last line: “His balls smell like Fritos.”

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About the author

Emily L. Stephens

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Emily L. Stephens writes about film, television, entertaining, gender, and cake. A lot about cake, really.