“Get your tongue ready, let’s go!”
“Fridge Over Troubled Daughter” is a curious kind of Thanksgiving episode. The closest thing to a holiday meal takes place in the Dialik Galaxy, sector 14, in 2599, as the Space Nuts give sub-sonic thanks to the space turkey Yarkclon for his galactic bounty.
Lady Dynamite has taken a turn. Maria Bamford Is Nuts, the intimate autobiographical series that was going to destigmatize mental illness forever and make her the toast of alt-comedy Twitter, has been retrofitted into the soft-core sci-fi of Space Nuts. The nurturing, idealistic work environment Karen Grisham rhapsodized about has turned into a place where she blindsides her star with changes and barks, “You want to be successful, don’t you?”
The distortion of Maria’s comic voice established in “Goof Around Gang” grows more entrenched in “Fridge Over Troubled Daughter,” as Space Nuts mines her history, twisting her most personal stories into plot points for the new series. This episode of Space Nuts is a corruption of season one’s pivotal Thanksgiving, when Maria invited Scott to meet her closest friends—and when she dumped him in a panic.
On Space Nuts, that penetrating, pensive personal journey is reduced to a quick clean-up of space-plates after space-dinner, then “a three-way tongue-and-tonsils” between Maria, Lance Banner, and Susan, Maria’s childhood best friend and current nemesis. It’s a concise picture of everything that’s wrong with Karen Grisham’s version of success, and of how completely she’ll abandon her promises and abuse her stable of talent.
It takes more than space-praise to a space-turkey and a floating turkey leg to make a Thanksgiving episode. “Fridge Over Troubled Daughter” is also an episode about family togetherness and how the presence of a parent can make a person feel like a child again. If that isn’t a holiday sentiment, what is?
As she’s fictionalized in Lady Dynamite and portrayed by Mary Kay Place, Marilyn Bamford is a caricature of a particular kind of mother: affectionate but judgmental, concerned to the point of being overbearing, and unshakably sure she’s right. Place invests even Marilyn’s cruelest revelations (like her off-hand remark in “Hypnopup” that she regrets having a child) with a vagueness and a gloss of affection that makes the emotional blow more glancing, less sharp. She doesn’t intend to hurt her daughter. She just does.
Season two of Lady Dynamite paints a grimmer picture of the Bamfords’ marriage than season one does. In “Wet Raccoon,” Joel vents his bottled-up rage upon his wife’s strawberry shortcake surprise with terrifying violence. In “Hypnopup,” Marilyn sends her 16-year-old daughter to film the salacious details of Joel’s (imaginary) dalliances. In “Goof Around Gang,” Marilyn serenades the absent Joel with accusations of distance greater than his fishing trips can explain. Lady Dynamite is all about breaking long-standing cycles of behavior, and with Maria’s mental health stable (at least in the present timeline), the writers are weaving in more common dysfunctional cycles for Maria (and Scott) to confront and conquer.
Marilyn is right that Scott had a turbulent childhood. Scott is right that Marilyn infantilizes Maria. But it doesn’t matter how astute their snap judgments are. What matters is how they react, each falling in their own instinctive patterns. Switching haphazardly between her roles as a parent and as a trained therapist (Place’s delivery of the swallowed “unlicensed” is a gem), Marilyn lectures Scott non-stop on recovering from trauma. Scott retreats from her judgmental prying, storming out of dinner, skipping breakfast, and holing up in the bedroom.
Maria Bamford, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, and Place walk a tightrope in these scenes, never letting their frankly emotional performances undercut the comedy, and vice versa. Sometimes they’re guarded; sometimes they’re touchingly open. Sometimes they’re sharing brutal truths; sometimes they’re delivering lines with goofy lightheartedness. Sometimes they do both, like when Scott describes his childhood at Marilyn’s insistence: “My dad was a drunk. He used to throw knives at us and I lived in fear the whole time. And we had a rabbit named Tilly!”
That emotional rawness is palatable by Lady Dynamite’s embrace of absurdity and artificiality. In flashbacks to 1987, there’s no attempt to soften the focus on its principals or to keep the ages of Maria’s supposed contemporaries consistent. When she teases Bill (Spence Moore II) because she’s four months older (“and four months wiser,” he adds), or when Mo Collins skates around with the young performer playing Susan Beeber’s “sizzling fuck-hot brother, Justin,” the camera showcases the contrast in their ages. In the big skating competition, the necessity of using stunt skaters becomes a comic asset by the simple expedient of showing more and more clearly every minute that they are stunt skaters.
For the second episode in a row, Lady Dynamite mitigates the effect of a gruesome accident by staging it as cartoonishly as possible. When the floppy-limbed doll that serves as Bill’s stand-in smashes into a glass vat of red drink, it’s overblown enough to soften the blow for the audience (if not the character).
It’s still a throw-away ending for the character, underlining how little thought was put into Bill’s character. As winningly as Moore plays him, he’s a plot device, existing only to spur Maria to her goal and vanishing when she’s learned a valuable lesson. The writing doesn’t set him up as a spoof of throw-away characters or Very Special Episode one-offs, which it could easily do given the framing of the Duluth flashbacks as a hackneyed sitcom. It just presents his character’s careless arc as is. (As careless an arc as the one that lands Bill on the floor of Blade Runnerz’s refreshment center, surrounded by streams of red Kool-Aid. Too soon?)
But Bill’s existence, as opposed to his character development, underlines a recurring theme of the season so far. She’s his cousin, living just a few hours away, and she’s never even heard of him. When Marilyn warns Maria not to get involved with Bill, Maria (reasonably enough) assumes she knows why. In her past as in her present, Maria’s life is full of people who barely know each other. In her past as in her present, they’re all jumping to conclusions (as hard as Bill jumps into that glass juice dispenser—still too soon?) on the scantest of information or intuition.
Those conclusions might look right from the outside, but like Scott’s fridge installation, it all changes once you get inside and shut the door behind you. Marilyn’s resistance to Scott isn’t based in dislike, but in a fear that he’ll fail her daughter when times get tough. Marilyn’s concern over “what happens when the damage comes out again” could be more speculation about Scott’s psychology, but it also sounds like barely repressed anxiety about Maria’s.
Marilyn’s conjecture that Scott’s fridge is a representation of the domesticity that frightened him as a child sounds clever… but Marilyn can’t know the importance of the chicken leg and turkey leg side by side on the installation shelf, because she doesn’t know Scott. “That’s my mantra,” Scott told Maria in “Wet Raccoon. Seeing the objects turn up, unremarked upon, is the kind of ingenious detail that makes Lady Dynamite’s background sparkle.
“Bridge Over Troubled Daughter” has plenty of sparkle in the foreground, too. As Scott closes the fridge door for some privacy, making its colored lights twinkle, Marilyn gasps, “It’s magical!” (I whispered the same exact words just a breath before her.) Even more magical is the simple sentiment in Scott’s eyes, and the shocked delight in Maria’s, as he kneels to propose.
Scott’s been carrying around the ring for three weeks, waiting for the right moment. The right moment is when his wife-to-be trusts his resolution to support her and enthusiastically returns it. It’s magical, in the most mundane and beautiful way. As preposterous as Lady Dynamite can be, Maria and Scott feel real, and so does the work they do to better their relationship. And that’s something to be thankful for.
- In the future timeline, Maria’s workplace is a hostile alien landscape, and “Fridge Over Troubled Daughter” intensifies Maria’s disorientation by adding glitch-ridden audio and distortion effects to its repertoire of fast cuts and shimmying camera.
- Space Nuts’ expedition to the Krylex mines also rips off Maria’s life and Lady Dynamite’s first season, turning Maria’s soul-searching trip to a Checkpoint “school” into a frothy space adventure—and then giving the story arc to Susan.
- “Number one, why so many blowjobs? Blowjobs are an art form and really deserve respect and character development.”
- Dagmar explaining who Gayle is: “Some jagoff.”
- I didn’t realize I could recognize Paul Scheer from the back of his head. Here’s hoping Gayle gets more to do in future episodes.
- “Bridge Over Troubled Daughter” is written and directed by Robert Cohen, who also directed Lady Dynamite’s previous holiday episode, “A Vaginismus Miracle,” in which Maria and Scott meet for the first time and he fiddles with her fuse box. (Yeah, he does.) Bless us, every one!