After an inspiring, articulate pep talk from her German-accented pug, Lady Dynamite’s star and protagonist has a brief moment of clarity about her place in the world. The sixth episode out of 12 gives every indication of a triumphant moment, the kind of scene plenty of lesser shows would milk for every ounce of sentimentality. But once she hugs her pug, assuring herself and the audience that “I think I finally know what I’m doing!” and right after the show baits its viewers into anticipating a sentimental exposition of her personal growth, cue the choir that soundtracks every ending with a perfectly timed refrain:
“I don’t know what I’m doing / More than half of the time.”
If you’ve made it this far, your laughter will carry through the credits. The binge paid off, and you’re totally fluent in the distinct, masterful dialect of Lady Dynamite.
TiVo, Netflix, and the subsequent rise of streaming television popularized binge-watching, and in return, breathed new life into older shows that struggled to find an audience, like the brief and wonderful three season run of Fox’s Arrested Development. Arrested Development was likely too far ahead of its time to really connect with a strong enough audience, despite the suite of Emmys collected by its cast of now-household names.
If anything, Arrested Development was too disorienting for the Seinfeld watcher (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Even the most progressive network sitcoms followed well-established comedic timing as old as I Love Lucy. Watch a three-camera sitcom, even the great ones, and you can trace a rhythm to the joke telling. A straight man serves a line, the funny guy volleys. Pause, laughter; rinse, repeat, “shut up, Meathead!”, laugh again. That’s not to say the medium was beyond innovation — racy quips from Married With Children or the mostly-black ensemble comedies of the ’90s might also get an “Oooooooooh” from the live studio audience — but the template was largely the same.
But Arrested Development and the onslaught of single-camera comedies inspired by its persistent blink-and-you’ll-miss-it gags required a deeper engagement. Spiritual successors like 30 Rock had an audience acclimated with a rewind button, which is to say, it had an audience large enough to satisfy a network.
Arrested Development creator Mitch Hurwitz then tackled a fourth season of Arrested Development for Netflix to mixed results. It was an early attempt at capitalizing on the unique opportunities afforded by binge-watching, and its aims were noble but messy. Fans who’d spent years waiting for a true follow-up to one of the great sitcoms of all time were a little confounded by the results.
But at least the fourth season of Arrested Development found Maria Bamford. Cue Lady Dynamite.
Ten years after Arrested Development’s network run, Netflix released an entire season of Bamford and co-creators Pam Brady (South Park) and Hurwitz’s zany vision of a woman attempting to survive Hollywood while thriving with mental illness. Loosely based on Bamford’s life, the story is told with a semi-fictional depiction of her momentous rise (and growing mania, Bamford is bipolar II), her attempt at recovery in her hometown of Duluth, Minnesota, and her present efforts to cope with all that she’s been through.
Each season of her past life uses a filter to help tell the story from Bamford’s eyes, slightly askew by her health and circumstances. A warm, flattering tone for her ascent and a cool, grim hue of blue to reflect her doldrums. (You won’t need an extensive background in cinematography to see the symbolism. Friend and frequent cameo Patton Oswalt smashed the fourth wall to help Bamford give the audience a smooth transition.) When she moves from her past(s) — plural — to her present, the filter is gone, and viewers, along with Bamford, find their balance.
The camera continues to speak. Hurwitz ups the ante on his Arrested Development-style cutaways to match Bamford’s manic comic sensibilities (and her mania). The gags, as you become fluent in their speed and frequency, draw your finger near the pause button, making sure you don’t miss the easter eggs in a phony OK Cupid dating profile, or the totalitarian posters in an English-immersion school for Mexican employees. The school sponsored by Bamford’s possibly-evil department store employer is disturbingly reminiscent of her work with Target.
Just as a traditional sitcom’s native tongue is found in its laugh track, the sight and sound gags of Lady Dynamite (like the unsettling smooth jazz music that plays whenever Maria and her fling perform fellatio) signal something in its universe. Netflix’s binge-ready structure starts a new episode as soon as the last one starts, and the credits hide musical numbers that call back older episodes. It’s a perfect system, because in Lady Dynamite you learn (and laugh) best through immersion.