At a time when anxiety is running especially high across the country—or, at the very least, people are more open about those feelings—the return of Lady Dynamite couldn’t be more welcome. Actor-comedian Maria Bamford stars as herself in this comedy from Pam Brady and Mitch Hurwitz, which is equal parts surreal comedy and groundbreaking exploration of mental illness. The first season was a doozy: It got off to a bit of a rocky start, its ambitious multi-timeline approach getting occasionally snarled. But Bamford pressed on, hilariously and bravely depicting the highs and lows of her bipolar disorder, which lined up neatly (on TV, anyway) with the peaks and valleys of her career. Bamford gave an empathetic and electrifying performance which, along with rich characterization across the board, made the show incredibly rewarding. It’s not an overstatement to call the first season finale one of the best in recent history.
A similar sense of accomplishment is woven into the narrative of season two, which is even more meta, off-the-wall, and joyous than its predecessor. This new eight-episode run finds Maria living mostly happily with boyfriend Scott (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson), whose expanded role in her life is proudly broadcast in the opening moments of the premiere. Lady Dynamite mines this classic TV setup for humor both dark and whimsical—the first half-hour alone touches on body positivity and emotional repression, while also featuring a plump raccoon chowing down on some made-to-order fajitas.
The show continues to juggle multiple storylines, though the demarcations are much clearer this time around: There’s Maria’s frigid (in more ways than one) Duluth past; her present exploration of what it means to make room in your life for someone; and the future, in which there’s a show-within-a-show titled Maria Bamford Is Nuts!, in production one year from now for MuskVision. (Yes, that’s Elon Musk’s fictitious streaming service, which relies on AI instead of human instinct in green-lighting series.) These stories all draw from the real Bamford’s life, including finding and accepting love, as well as collaborating with Brady and Hurwitz on her show.
Despite having four fewer episodes, season two is still chock full of surreal segues, outlandish premises, and Karen Grishams. As before, the flashbacks are among the weaker points, even with Kurt Braunohler doing an uncanny impression of Ed Begley Jr. (and virtually every Midwestern dad). These trips to the past aren’t so much superfluous as they are overlong; the Bamford family’s history of passive-aggressiveness could easily be traced in half the time. But these flashbacks really only appear tenuous when compared with the questions being posed in Lady Dynamite’s compelling present and intriguing future.
Many shows have delved into domesticity, though few have been as unvarnished in their treatment. Early on in season two, Scott and Maria have to deal with each other’s more annoying habits. For Maria, it’s listening to Scott’s nonsensical songs (Lily Aldrin can relate), while Scott takes exception with sharing their food with a wild animal. This leads to confrontation, which is resolved with an improvised song, a giant naked man, and water-warped hardwood floors. The fact that such messiness remains Lady Dynamite’s idea of an optimistic episode capper is not only heartwarming, it’s heartening. It reminds us that even our loved ones are flawed, and that progress is gradual. Most important, it demonstrates just how hard-won their relationship is. Lady Dynamite may have some of the trappings of a Disney fairy tale—talking animals, a chirpy-voiced heroine, animated interludes—but a happy ending is far from guaranteed.
And yet, there’s a strong sense of optimism running through the new season, even though it still knocks Maria (and Scott) back a step or two. It’s what drives them to open up about their lack of trust and fiscal responsibility. That hopefulness is most palpable in the show’s present storyline, which it seems to borrow from the real Bamford, who recently discussed finding her groove as a TV star with The A.V. Club. It can also be a symptom of her condition, which is part of what makes Lady Dynamite unlike any other comedy out there. It challenges its protagonist in her triumphs as much as in her defeats. Where the second season most sharply departs from the first is in living more comfortably in the moment. Instead of laying Maria’s (and Bamford’s) heart bare every half hour, Lady Dynamite is now building a protective layer around it. For all the cathartic comfort we’ve found in her struggles, Bamford is transcending the need to suffer for—and in—her art. And the show is all the better for it.
Reviews by Emily L. Stephens will run daily beginning November 10.