Turns Out Mental Illness Makes Thrilling TV

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Photo: Saeed Adyani/Netflix

For the past two decades, Maria Bamford has become one of our foremost experts in the delicate art of mining personal trauma for laughs. Now, the stand-up comedian — who suffers from hypomania, bipolar disorder, and a nasty form of OCD called “unwanted thoughts syndrome” — is unspooling the contents of her psyche in a slightly more mainstream format. As she says in the first few minutes of her new half-hour Netflix series, Lady Dynamite: “I’m a 45-year-old woman who’s clearly sun-damaged! My skin is getting softer yet my bones are jutting out, so I’m half-soft, half-sharp! And I have a show! What a great late-in-life opportunity!”

Lady Dynamite is loosely based on Bamford’s string of hospitalizations in 2011 for bipolar II — “the new gladiator sandal,” as she has joked. “I wanted it to be funny, obviously, but I also wanted it to be a realistic portrayal of what a psychiatric breakdown would be,” Bamford told me on the phone yesterday, in a slow and halting cadence unlike her chipper onscreen voice. “It’s hard to portray the unbearable nothingness that is suicidal depression. There isn’t anything going on. That’s [a hard thing] to move a story, just sitting in a chair for seven days.”

But the show has plenty going on. In fact, with its quick jump cuts, oscillation of moods and tones, and shifting between different time periods (past, present, and “Duluth,” when Maria was living at home after the 2011 breakdown), Lady Dynamite seems to draw on Maria’s disordered mind not just as a narrative template, but also a formal one: a magic-school-bus ride through the mind of a manic genius. And, as someone who has seen enough slick semi-autobiographical shows about male comics to last a lifetime, I’d say it’s thrilling to see a show that consistently unsettles expectations. In the first episode, Maria invites a flirtatious bike cop, played by Patton Oswalt, to come and see her stand-up show. “Oh god, Maria, you’re going to put stand-up in your show?” Oswalt asks, breaking the fourth wall. “It’s been done so many times before. You’ve got Louie, Seinfeld, Chapelle, Amy Schumer, my two pilots …” (Later, when a fake brick wall shows up, Oswalt declares, “Louie is going to throw a fit.”) So Bamford never does stand-up on the show — she does, however, do a commercial for a Japanese soup brand titled “Pussy Noodles.”

“I’m just glad to be useful in any way,” said Bamford, when I ask her if she minds having mental illness be such a large part of what people know her for. “That’s what I find meaningful in life. Also, on a selfish level, it helps me feel a lot less alone and like my life has meaning, especially for the years that were really tough. To encourage other people feels good. And it remedies my fear of, that if I did get ill again, that it would have to be kept a secret. I don’t think that’s true anymore.”