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Lady Dynamite is getting bigger to get smaller, and it’s dazzling

Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Maria Bamford (Screenshot: Lady Dynamite)
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“Here’s to being a team and to not having secrets!”

If you’d told me three years ago that True Detective’s Dewall was going to be my new TV crush and half of my only OTP, I would’ve said “… yeah, that checks out, I’m pretty creepy.” But Lady Dynamite’s Scott Marvel Cassidy isn’t creepy at all.


Scott went from being Maria’s intended one-Vaginismus-stand to being her other half with remarkable ease, thanks in large part to Ólafur Darri Ólafsson’s unpretentious portrayal. As he’s written, Scott might come across as a flat caricature propping up Maria, but with Ólafsson’s grounded, warm presence, his half of their regular expository epilogues sounds as earnest and true as Maria’s. I’d expect no less from a graduate of Exposition University. (Go, Pipes!)

Maria Bamford’s performance, from the twinkle in her eye to the peace in her face when she looks at her on-screen husband, clinches it. On the show, Maria likes to remind Bruce that she’s a comedian, not a dramatic actor, but Bamford makes Maria’s love for Scott look real and comfortable… and real, real comfortable. Together, they’re are a powerhouse of joyous affection, compassionate problem-solving, and meaningful personal growth. They’re a team.

Their union has supplanted the central relationship of Lady Dynamite’s first season, the team of Maria and Bert, and that’s okay. Bert and Blueberry will always be important in Maria’s life, and now in Scott’s. So will her parents, and so will her friends. But Lady Dynamite’s second season is thoughtfully, delicately exploring Maria’s shift from learning to ride her rocky psychological roller-coaster to managing a much more mundane, but no less challenging, “normal” life.

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

“Whenever we’re together, nothing can get me down,” Maria tells Bruce as “Kids Have To Dance” begins. With Scott, even errands seem
festive. (“We got stamps!”) But when disaster strikes, Maria reverts to old patterns, trying to solve problems by herself instead of as a team… and trying to solve everyone else’s problems, not her own.

More than ever, it looks like both the flash-forwards and the flashbacks of season two aren’t objective reality, but filtered through (and set off-kilter by) Maria’s imagination. (One hint of this is a passing remark in “Fridge Over Troubled Daughter,” when Marilyn impossibly foretells Bill’s loss of his legs.) I find myself hoping so, because the bitter invective 1987 Joel and Marilyn sling at each other is more easily explained if it’s amplified by the impressionable feelings of a teenager.


That would also explain her mother’s well-intentioned, scathing advice after Maria believes herself complicit in a stranger’s suicide. “Sweetie, it is not your fault,” Marilyn says, but immediately follows it with an indictment: “Just remember, you are responsible for the happiness of others and you just can’t make good decisions.” A kid would remember that for a lifetime… but a kid who thought that’s what her mother meant would carry those words around just as heavily.


So, when adult Maria hears about a child injured on the merciless set of a Filipino forced-dance competition—produced unwittingly by her—her first instinct, and her second, is to reach out, not lawyer up. Bruce’s advice to sit tight and shut up seems heartless, but when she yells at Scott, too, it’s clear Maria hasn’t internalized the nature of partnership. “There is no mine and yours anymore,” he tells her. “Whatever happens to you happens to me. Not only financially but emotionally.”

Kids Have To Dance—the fictional endurance contest, not the episode—is a metaphor for Bamford’s experience as the irreplaceable star of her own series, and young Efren’s faked injury is an exaggeration of the temptation to shirk both the long hours and the burden of responsibility.

Lady Dynamite’s first season was groundbreaking, gleefully inventive, and brutally honest about Bamford’s history while fictionalizing it enough to make the series more than the story of one woman’s life. The second season has a bigger universe and a smaller scope of story. It’s less ambitious, and less dramatic.

That’s not diminishing. That’s a daring expansion of Lady Dynamite’s narrative.

In life, stories change, people change, lives change. It’s refreshing to see a series reflecting that. It’s especially refreshing to see a series change for the purpose of caring for the artist. Lady Dynamite’s first season rose to a crescendo of disaster, recounting a tale of collapse and recovery heightened to a comical frenzy. This season, there’s less disaster, less collapse, less frenzy. As Maria says in the season premiere, “My mentals are pretty stable and I just want to spend more time focused on my personal life.” The growth continues, but it’s not about the dramatic rise and fall of crisis. It’s about the gradual, healthy growth of a stable life.

Bamford has sacrificed professionally and financially to create a sustainable working environment. In her words, “I don’t really care about getting paid to feel terrible.” Unlike the Maria of Lady Dynamite’s future, she was able to negotiate fewer hours; instead of the fictional power struggles of Mo Collins’ Susan crushing Maria under her super-powered stomps, the real Bamford says, “I would love if Mo Collins would just take over the entire show.”


I’d love it a lot less. Though her broadness both in the first season and in the second shapes the narrative, it’s tiring. The same is true of Ana Gasteyer’s Karen Grisham, with her relentless hubris, her casual racism, and her copious jizz jokes. These characters are intentionally portrayed as unstoppable forces that sap Maria’s energy, but that doesn’t make them easier to watch.

As a viewer, it’s hard to see someone else take center stage; it must be hard for Bamford to yield it, as nurturing and necessary as it is for her. As Maria’s stand-in, Sarah Wright (Sarah Wright Olsen) is both the unflagging power player Maria sometimes wishes she could be and the intimidatingly perfect replacement she fears.


At least in the fictional story, for the exhausted star at the center of this universe, stepping back is both a gift and a threat. Something about Sarah Wright Olsen’s features (and especially the big grin she displays at one point) makes her a weirdly apt match for Maria Bamford, and Sarah-as-Maria’s pounding on the space-door has to be an homage to arguably the most infamous body-double scene in cinema: Willow’s song from The Wicker Man. In “Kids Have To Dance,” it’s giving Maria a different kind of knife feelings, and she ends up as the most sinister example of a woman laughing alone with salad.

Maria Bamford (Screenshot: Lady Dynamite)

Scott’s remark that “Maybe we double our odds with two Joe Dirts” is more than a testament to their like-mindedness and devotion. It’s Lady Dynamite embracing the need to expand its focus and let the star at its heart step back from the camera. And it’s a hopeful vision of a possible future.


Lady Dynamite isn’t as searingly dramatic, as intensely personal, as it was in the first season. But it’s a smart, thoughtful, hilarious show that makes sincerity a virtue, not a drag. It’s richly layered and daringly dynamic as co-creator Mitchell Hurwitz’s Arrested Development, but with an undeniable buoyancy. Rarest of all, it’s kind at its core. If the price of Bamford continuing Lady Dynamite is that we get merely funny, inventive, joyful, and very, very good television instead of a the groundbreaking personal portrait of season one, it’s a bargain.

Stray observations

  • Tink!
  • It’s easy to see Tink as a representation of Maria’s self-image as a (ahem) kid. She’s a tiny little creature, injured but spirited, and a little out of place, cautiously bleating out her small needs.
  • This is the most I’ve ever liked David Spade.
  • Future Scott seems to be fine, phew! His only remark to Sarah-as-Maria about Susan is “Don’t leave me alone with her. She’s not kind.”
  • “There’s no buts in space, Scott. Only nuts. Space nuts.”
  • Sarah Wright Olsen is probably best known to sitcom audiences as Millicent Gergich, but I first noticed her as the sad-eyed, desperately hustling model Pete Campbell exploits on Mad Men: “You didn’t think I had a mother?”

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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.