Lady Dynamite’s second-season premiere wants to have its cake and eat it, too. That’s not a complaint; that’s a theme woven through “Wet Raccoon” right from the jump—the actual jump, when Maria jumps in and out of the shower in the opening scene. (I’ll use “Maria” to speak of the fictionalized character and “Bamford” for the performer.) Pixelation appears on-screen, but Maria capers right out of the blurs, giving viewers a glimpse of frontal nudity just seconds into the season.
It’s more than a poke at TV’s arbitrary coyness over nudity, more than a breaking of the medium’s artificial limits. Maria’s joyful jump out of the boundaries imposed on her is a sly hint at the tensions embodied (heh) in “Wet Raccoon,” and in Maria herself: the desire to have things both ways.
Both her past and present are presented with corny sit-com trappings, complete with cuts to mugging characters, hackneyed sound effects, ’80s-era credit sequences, and a classic Beckying. (As Maria’s father Joel, Kurt Braunohler replaces Ed Begley, Jr’s earnest sensitivity with twinkling intensity.) But Maria also asks Judd Apatow (played by Judd Apatow) to “solve my problems the way you solve story problems in your love movies.” You know, the raunchy rom-coms “that star blonde, kooky ladies like myself who are dating a loveable schlubb of a guy!” Maria’s both reducing life’s complexities to a tidy narrative and explicitly framing her domestic conflicts as dueling comic genres.
Maria and Scott’s conflicts are domestic conflicts. They’re fighting over wet hardwood floors and nonsense songs, not profound romantic or philosophical disagreements. This isn’t the high drama and high-wire comedy of broken hearts or broken lives. It’s the mundane conflict that comes with co-habitation, whether it’s over spilled milk or uncapped toothpaste.
In its first season, Lady Dynamite tackled the huge, sometimes painful problem of Maria’s (and Bamford’s) mercurial mental health. It was trailblazing. It was powerful. It was searingly honest. It was hilarious and brutal and sweet. It was some of the best television of 2016. And it’s only one facet of the performer, the character, and the story Lady Dynamite can tell.
Bamford knows that changing tone or topic can alienate an audience: “I think that’s just what happens in the arts—you move on to the blue period, and they’re like, ‘But I liked it when you painted in yellow! Oh, no!’” With its pre-credits nudity, gleeful jizz imagery, and copious “motherfucker!”s, “Wet Raccoon” shows that Lady Dynamite is still working blue. [Rimshot!] It also shows that season two is using the same palette—lightning-fast time shifts, genre spoofs, characters as complex as they are ridiculous, and above all, Bamford’s peculiar magnetism—to explore new subjects.
Maria keeps saying she’s “so so so so so so so so so so lucky” to live with her best friend, “and we just sing the same two words over and over again to different melodies. Just over and over and over and over and over and over again.” It’s a grievance desperately disguised as gratitude, but it’s also an apt description of domestic life. Even accounting for the delights and vicissitudes of life, most of us follow the same patterns and play out the same tunes over and over in different tones, on different scales, for most of our lives. It’s learning how to harmonize our oft-repeated tunes that’s hard.
There are some things you can’t have both ways. Maria can sneak a sizzling-hot pan of fajitas to Randall the raccoon, looking over her shoulder to be sure Scott hasn’t seen her, or she can believe her own whispered reassurance, “And yet there are no secrets in this family.” Joel Bamford can encourage his daughter to share her feelings or urge her to keep them bottled up. Following his own terrible advice, Joel doesn’t get to have his cake or to eat it.
Maria can have the career of “a quiet life with just enough work” she describes to Bruce Ben-Bacharach, or she can strive for the world-conquering dominance Karen Grisham, super-agent, promises in the flash-forward. But she must suspect Karen’s “one condition”—that Maria don “the most sacred lady-blazer” as an expression of her power—will be followed by more conditions, and her high-minded pledges will evaporate.
Karen’s first tacked-on demand: to drop “that baby voice.” The return of Diane Winterbottom Monte, natural extrovert, Harvard Lady Bobcat, and small-talker extraordinaire, is exhilarating, but Maria giving up her voice is a bad omen. Karen’s Teslas aren’t the only things on a collision course. So are Karen’s ambition and Maria’s need for calm and self-care.
In the flashback to 1987, Joel and Marilyn repress, repress, repress until his anger explodes, like a, uh, collision course! Nope, that metaphor doesn’t work, even though they’re at a train convention, where a symbolic collision would be easy to engineer. Thanks to “Wet Raccoon”’s quick-fire laughs (from a script credited to series co-creator Pam Brady), its joyous performances (especially from Bamford and newly promoted co-star Ólafur Darri Ólafsson as Scott), and its bright, bouncy visuals, small faults are easy to overlook, but this is just one of several in the episode.
The Duluth flashback squanders a chance to set up Marilyn’s substandard baking skills, explaining why her cake is universally deemed undesirable. As Scott disrobes in the closing, a continuity error shows Maria’s shirt pulled up and her pants pulled down. The spaghetti Western cues early and late in the episode reference Maria’s fear of a showdown with Scott, but they feel a little unfinished in a series that usually sews its episodes up tight.
Lady Dynamite’s always layered in subtle, ferociously clever hints of future developments. The key words here are subtle and hints. In the series’ very first scene, Karen Grisham’s recognizable glasses appear in the background of Maria’s giddy ride down a playground slide. That image, barely noticeable except in retrospect, doesn’t detract from the show’s flow. The presence of three high-powered characters named Karen Grisham doesn’t distract either, because it lands as a joke long before it’s a plot point. These details aren’t unfinished seams; they fit in seamlessly.
Like Arrested Development (created by Lady Dynamite co-creator Mitchell Hurwitz), in Lady Dynamite’s first 12 episodes, even its most obscure elements and long-arc jokes work as jokes before they work as callbacks. On its own, this premiere seems a little half-baked. Maybe these quibbles will be erased by the season’s second episode, or its third. Maybe the eight slices that make up this season of Lady Dynamite will form a cohesive whole.
In real life, sometimes you can have it both ways. Lady Dynamite can have modesty pixels and nudity. It can have love and fights. It can have secrets and openness. It can have non-stop laughs and difficult conversations.
In “Wet Raccoon,” having it both ways—having your cake and eating it, too—is a matter of choosing not to be bound by arbitrary limits. Marilyn laments Joel’s insistence on taking their daughter to Choochcon, making her miss the Battered Women’s cake auction. But the two events are held at the same time in the same building. All Maria has to do is step over the bright yellow line taped down between them and she can have both. So could Joel. So could Marilyn. It’s only the tape that keeps them separate. And Lady Dynamite is all about breaking through arbitrary limitations and blazing a new trail. Lady-blazing it, that is.
- Bamford’s nude scene violates expectations by showcasing a woman whose body isn’t shaped to near-unattainable standards by exercise, diet, and intense grooming. This isn’t Game Of Thrones nudity. This is real life nudity, or dang near it. It’s also, as some Judd Apatow schlubbables would be the first to note, pre-credits bush.
- Bamford has a little cake-and-keep-it-too this season, having negotiated to cut back her hours by expanding to other characters.
- In her interview with Maria, Pam speaks of working for the Abused Women’s shelter. But the signs at the event are for the Battered Women’s Cake Auction. Because cake is made with batter.
- The shot of Karen Grisham lying in the street, creamer running across the asphalt like blood, would be stronger without one of her trademark ejaculations (I KNOW WHAT I SAID) of complaint as voiceover.
- Maria, a year from now: “How long is this going to be taking, because I have a…?” [gestures to wedding dress]