“What kind of freaky creep built this mixed-up jumble of jambalaya?”
Lady Dynamite is a lot like Maria and Scott’s wedding. Its first iteration was nontraditional, wacky, fun, and tightly focused on one person’s vision and history. In its second, it’s bigger, broader, and occasionally overpopulated. Lady Dynamite’s first season centered on Maria; its second builds to a frenzy around her. And season two is less about Maria and more about everyone in her life.
“It’s not exactly like a wedding,” Marilyn says as Maria approaches the banquet room of Galanga Hall. “It’s a little bit more like a Mad Max movie without the dust.” Maria and Scott’s wedding has grown from the simple backyard celebration they hosted in “Apache Justice” to a 150-guest reception hosted by her mother to a lavish wedding in the Filipino tradition to a rampaging 2500-person circus.
Like this miniature Burning Man disguised as a wedding, the show isn’t entirely about Maria anymore, but not the way Space Nuts is no longer about her. Our star hasn’t been shunted aside. She’s stepped back to create space for other people in this mixed-up jumble of jambalaya. Lady Dynamite will always center on Maria Bamford, but now it’s more focused on the supporting players, and on the fictional Maria’s relationships. Some are longstanding, some are new. Some are intensely personal, like her partnership with Scott. Some are more sweeping, like her new commitment to L.A.’s Filipino community.
One more way season two of Lady Dynamite is like the elaborate second wedding: I wasn’t sure it was going to come off, until, miraculously, it did. Not perfectly, but with surprising grace, considering the backdrop of stilt-walkers, petting-zoo escapees, and stunt bikers.
Like “Little Manila,” Lady Dynamite’s season-two finale (written by Teresa Mulligan Rosenthal and series co-creator Pam Brady, who also directed), this wedding is a chaotic throng of ideas. There are so many things begging to go wrong here. The already increased universe of the show is suddenly even more explosively, absurdly inflated by the activities around their wedding. And then to reveal that the future segments have all been not just filtered through Maria’s imagination, but take place entirely within her imagination? That’s up there with the often-reviled All A Dream twist.
Reprised from the season premiere, the musical cue playing over Karen’s offer of the most sacred lady-blazer conjures up Luke Skywalker’s momentous choice between sides of The Force, though here the story device is less Return Of The Jedi and more Devil’s Advocate. I can’t begrudge Lady Dynamite its cautionary tale, dreamt up by its central character, any more than I can begrudge Bamford her dream of working “children’s hours.”
It’s telling that Karen Grisham badgers Maria into taking off her wings before helping her, and that Maria straps those wings back on as she rejects the seductive, duplicitous offer. The super-powered agent would happily pull the wings off a beautiful butterfly to keep it in the palm of her hand.
In the season premiere, Karen Grisham’s pitch crassly reduces Maria’s life story to “bingeable fucking installments.” Throughout the season, MuskVision’s producers diminish, belittle, and abuse Maria as an actor and an artist. They corrupt her vision and endanger her health. They reconstruct her sensitive, personal self-portrait of a sitcom into a space romp, and there’s reason to believe they always intended to: In the background of “Hypnopup” (the second episode of season two and the first to show the production of Maria Bamford Is Nuts), Karen Grisham’s director’s chair already bears the logo for Space Nuts. In the finale, Don Jr., the MuskVision IA that decides the fate of all programs (and that turns out to have programmed all reality), is defeated when his “rational computer mind” cannot fathom the complications of Maria’s personality, fractured by her will into two contradictory halves that represent her manic and depressive episodes.
This can be interpreted as condemnation of Netflix, as artistic contempt for a mass-market platform that can’t grasp the complexities and nuanced appeal of its quirky star property. And it’s true that the two Marias—one alight with feverish joy, another chill and somber—drive Don Jr. to destruction. As they rattle out with their wildly disparate thoughts and preoccupations, the computer pleads mechanically, “Please resolve! Please resolve!”
The complexities of Maria Bamford can’t be resolved into an easily digestible, tidily classified label. She wields a unique comedic voice, and her show is no easier to categorize than she is. Lady Dynamite is a staggeringly funny comedy with a gift for giddy frivolity. It’s also brazen in delving into depths rarely reached on sitcoms, from mental health to family dynamics. It’s brash and buoyant. It’s frankly melancholy. It champions compassionate, careful communication, and it pries up the rocks of dysfunction and peers at the wriggling things that burrow there.
Any algorithm is helpless against this exuberant, unabashed emotion and the sweet, silly, sorrowful charms of its star. But the finale makes it clear that the imagined fault isn’t just in the system, but in an artist’s romantic yearning to resolve all the world’s problems. The system she works in is corrupt and toxic, using anything and everything as content. But it’s Maria who has been tempted by the lure of an impossible future. Karen Grisham baits the hook with palpably impossible promises, but Maria’s the one who takes the bait.
Of course it’s Mira Sorvino as Ranlith the hive-queen. And of course she’s sporting the stagey Royal Shakespeare Company accent of Millicent Pratt. And of course the revolution plotted by the Hollywood Ladies Club is more sinister than it appears. (Life advice: a boardroom full of masked-and-caped power players is hatching a sinister plot, like, nine times out of ten. The tenth, it’s an orgy.) Emerging from her prison, Ranlith chides Maria for a “big-tittied idiot”: “You were such an easy mark, Maria, because your ego so wanted you to be the chosen one.” It’s true, Maria agrees with manic congeniality. “I did! I wanted to save the world!”
There are elements here that don’t make sense. Sure, they’re an imagined vision of a hellish future filtered through an increasingly manic false-future viewpoint, but that doesn’t solve the narrative problems they pose. Just to pick one gleaming example: Why the sword? What’s the sword for, except to give Maria something to brandish nonchalantly and to give Mira Sorvino something to lick? (She does a bang-up job with it, and with all her imperious, inhuman wickedness. I never knew that I needed to see Mira Sorvino play Lady Macbeth, or a vampire, or vampire Lady Macbeth, but dang.)
But the collision of Maria’s present with her imagined future, as muddy as the concept is, is executed with fleet finesse, smashing the timelines into one zooming disaster that only resolves into happiness again when Maria rejects Karen Grisham’s cynical faux-spirituality and empty promises of heroism. “Noooooo!” roars Bamford before blurting out in a cheery dismissive tone, “ I will not lose my mind over a dumb TV show!”
It’s the real-life choice Maria Bamford has made, and she doesn’t care if you don’t like it.
Well, maybe she cares. But she cares about herself and her loved ones more. As the fictional Maria tells her parents as she returns to her circus of a wedding, “I’m still finding out who I am! And I either push people away or I do everything that people say and lose myself. I’m trying to find a balance.”
This series has found a balance. In its first season, Lady Dynamite broke new ground. In its second season, it’s building there, constructing a strong, broad foundation that makes sure Maria Bamford isn’t the sole support beam holding up the whole universe. In the first season, Maria bought a house, mostly to please other people, and ended up pleasing herself. In its second season, Maria Bamford put her own needs first. Lady Dynamite has built its star a home and expanded her television family to include an ever-present other half. Because “two hot dogs are so cute, but one is kind of sad.”
That’s art, and that’s the artist taking responsibility for her well-being as well as her show. That’s entertainment, folks.
- Sorry, no Tink slideshow this episode. Please enjoy this alpaca (?).
- If the substitution of Jollibee for teenaged Maria’s dream wedding dinner of Taco Bell is product placement, it’s some of the smartest I’ve seen.
- By the time I’d heard the phrase “ladyboy” and thought “… uh-oh,” Maria Bamford had already taken responsibility for the unthinking use of a slur and apologized.
- “When you have a poorly supervised petting zoo right next to fireworks, you might get a run-away goat.” I immediately turned to my spouse and bleated, “Love is a run-away goat!” And it is, sometimes: a crazy coincidence that can make your most romantic dreams come true.
- That’s it for Lady Dynamite season two! Thanks for reading!