Lady Dynamite begins with Bamford caught in the reverie of a ’70s-style hair commercial before cutting sharply between various points in time—her past as an up-and-coming comedy star in Hollywood; her recovery at a mental-health clinic in her hometown of Duluth, Minnesota, surrounded by her (mostly) supportive family; and her new life back in L.A. in the present day, trying to avoid old pitfalls. The effect is a strange, staccato narrative rhythm that takes a little while to adjust to (but one that Bamford-as-herself is keenly aware of).
In the first episode, Bamford wonders whether her return to stand-up should be part of the series, as it is for so many similar autobiographical comedies, worrying that it won’t fit with the many storytelling elements already present. Her longtime friend Patton Oswalt, ostensibly playing a bike cop in one scene, suddenly breaks character and starts counseling her against the move, warning that it’s something so many comedians have tried that it can no longer be effective. As a brick wall background is set up behind them for a future scene, Oswalt tuts that “Louis [C.K.] is going to throw a fit.” Later, the comedian John Mulaney (who tried the same autobiographical stand-up gimmick on his Fox sitcom Mulaney, only to earn unfair comparisons to Seinfeld), shows up as extra and squints disapprovingly.
This kind of self-referentiality can be tough for a comedy to pull off, but Bamford has a pro in her corner: Hurwitz, best known as the creator of Arrested Development and a seasoned sitcom writer with decades of genre-busting work under his belt. In the ’90s, he helped define the metatextual sitcom with his work on The John Laroquette Show, which played with that star’s grumpy persona in comedy scenarios that veered wildly between light and dark. Hurwitz collaborated on that series with Brady, who later became a key contributor to South Park before working on Lady Dynamite with him.
Together, they’ve found an anarchic format for Bamford that doesn’t stifle her voice, but instead plays off it in unusual ways. An ongoing theme in Lady Dynamite is Bamford’s serial passivity—a result of her polite upbringing and own internal anxieties—which helps unify the show despite its time-skipping structure. As we lurch between her sunny Hollywood past, bleak Minnesota recovery, and uneasy show-biz future, we see how Bamford’s lack of confidence became her undoing, and the stakes for the series become clear: whether she can confront (and change) her own worst habits. If she fails, it’s still funny, but whenever she succeeds, it feels especially triumphant.
Bamford takes advantage of her years in Hollywood to bring together a deep bench of supporting actors, a necessary shift from the glory days of her web series (where she played basically every character herself). Fred Melamed is Maria’s wonderfully obsequious, incompetent manager; Ana Gasteyer is an obnoxious Hollywood agent from Bamford’s past; and Mary Kay Place and Ed Begley Jr. turn in subtle, rewardingly sweet performances as her often-confused parents.