In this episode, Maria lands a lucrative commercial spot, finds inspiration in an unlikely place, discusses divisive social issues with an Oscar-winning screenwriter, works with an Oscar-winning actor, stars in a pilot ordered to series, and—most importantly—solves racism! Yay!
Wait, let’s back up.
In my review of “Bisexual Because Of Meth,” I described Gabriel (Craig Frank) as the healthiest, most grounded character on Lady Dynamite so far, and I hoped we’d see him again. I just didn’t expect that to happen immediately. But it does! Yay!
Wait, let’s back up again.
In the opening of “White Trash,” Gabriel shows up again and again: delivering Maria’s pizza, as her Uber driver, taking care of her pugs at doggie daycare, swimming at Daryl Gates Memorial Pool. He’s everywhere! Yay!
Maria’s shocked but tickled to be running into Gabriel, but he’s understandably less delighted. After all, this is the woman who witnessed (and, okay, provoked) his recent breakup. His harmless but racially charged jokes (jokes? jokes! but are they?) put Maria on edge. “Do you think I’m racist? Is asking that racist?” To salve her discomfort at Gabriel’s teasing and her anxiety about “everything I do or say lately, racially,” and to prepare for her new show working with The Lucas Bros., Maria tackles her own unconscious racism and privilege with the help of like-minded soul searchers.
It doesn’t go great.
“White Trash” (written by Kyle McCulloch) shows the many ways well-intentioned people do harm. LA P.U.R.E., the local branch of People United For Racial Equality, counsels well-meaning white people to avoid discussing race altogether, because “interfering, or even trying to relate, is an implicit insult to people whose struggles we couldn’t possibly understand.” Its leader, Sheri, has a history of co-opting black identity, letting appreciation turn into appropriation. And it’s not just race that moves people to ill-advised avoidance or exploitation. Maria’s father, Joel, immerses himself in a stranger’s problems to avoid his daughter’s, but instead of empathizing with his poop-mouthed fellow cobbler’s apprentice, he pities him. Maria finds inspiration for her superstore spokesperson in a fellow member of her debtors’ group, using a shopping addict’s compulsion to create a celebration of shopping.
Even when Maria grapples with unconscious racism, she perpetuates it. Instead of asking Kenny and Keith Lucas whether they object to their roles in White Trash, she convinces her powerful co-star (Oscar-winner Mira Sorvino playing two-time BAFTA-winner Millicent Pratt playing sitcom superstar Jennipher Nickels, and I haven’t written a character description this layered since The Spoils Before Dying) to pull some strings. Maria’s interference inadvertently reduces Kenny and Keith from stars to straight men, elevating her to raunchy co-star. Then she seeks their approval, prompting them to be happy for “representing your race” as well-educated, affluent, successful characters on the sidelines.
“We don’t want to represent anything. We’re comedians,” Keith tells her. Kenny adds, “We just want to be funny.” By focusing on their race, she’s ignored their individuality and their agency. It’s doubly cutting because Maria herself was willing to become a corporate shill and a sitcom sex object; she doesn’t let her gender, her political ideals, or any other personal belief or attribute define her career. But she assumes her black co-workers would—and should—and that they need her to speak for them, to speak instead of them. By speaking for her co-stars, she takes their voice away… then learns a valuable lesson. Yay!
Wait, there’s more. This episode is as layered as Mira Sorvino’s character. Trying to defend the denouement of “White Trash” (not of White Trash, got it?) from the actual Lucas Bros.’ critique, Maria flounders, then calls for back-up from Academy Award-winning screenwriter John Ridley, who happens to be on set helping himself to craft services. Yay!
Not so fast. “Oh, I don’t think what you’re doing is malicious,” he says, not unkindly. “It’s just recklessly ignorant.” It’s a concise summary, made more pointed when the camera cuts to Ridley in conversation with Craig Frank outside the studio. “I can’t believe this episode was about race, and they introduce me in the beginning and then I just disappear from the script,” Frank says, echoing my own thoughts throughout “White Trash.” Expanding on the daunting task of dissecting race relations in even the most sustained and serious pop culture, much less in a sitcom, Ridley launches into a key point—yay! thoughtful discussion of the insidiousness of racism in a sitcom!
—just in time to be silenced by Maria, who barges between them with a wave and a holler of “Later, gators!” Apologizing, she turns the conversation from racial injustice to her own guilt, coaxes a tempered compliment out of John Ridley, and rides the euphoria of that lukewarm praise into the distance, just as her sitcom script promised. Lady Dynamite solves racism by going full Adaptation.! Yay!
Wait. “White Trash” doesn’t solve racism, because no one show ever will. Hilariously blowing up the white-savior narrative, Lady Dynamite examines how even well-meaning people can feed a cycle of racism through privilege and ignorance, how even a principled person will put their own comfort ahead of their ideals, and how important it is to listen to the people marginalized by a system instead of acting unreflectively on their behalf. Yay!
- Mira Sorvino roaring in protest over “this meta bollocks rubbish” and channelling Lady Macbeth in that bubble-gum pink push-up bra and tank top is just the cherry on top of this delicious sundae of an episode.
- I honestly can’t tell if it’s meta bollocks rubbish or just unavoidable that The Lucas Bros.’ dry comedic sensibility is mostly set aside in this story where their dry comic sensibility is mostly set aside.
- Yeah, yeah, we all get the Rachel Dolezal gibe Lady Dynamite is going for when LA P.U.R.E. leader Sheri (Deborah Theaker) appears in flashback as Cherié, but if you can’t make your joke without blackface, consider whether your joke is worth making. In Gabriel’s words, “There’s no right answer. Things aren’t black and white. Or are they?”
- I expected Sheri’s shocked “Maria! We don’t call them ‘garbage people’ any more” to pay off eventually with “They prefer ‘sanitation engineers,’” but no.
- “All my shopping molecules are vibrating!”
- Don’t miss Maria Bamford telling The A.V. Club’s Marah Eakin what makes her laugh.
- “Peanut… Buster… Parfait.” Yay!