Karl Puschmann is an entertainment writer for the New Zealand Herald.

Karl Puschmann: Bipolar sitcom hits like a dayglow wrecking ball

Serious elements elevate wildly fun show into unique territory.
Lady Dynamite presents an accurate yet at times hugely exaggerated take on Maria Bamford's life as a comedian  with bipolar disorder. Picture / Netflix
Lady Dynamite presents an accurate yet at times hugely exaggerated take on Maria Bamford's life as a comedian with bipolar disorder. Picture / Netflix

Who knew bipolar disorder was so damn funny? Not me. But then I'm not a doctor. I can barely diagnose a suitable parking space ...

In recent years there's been a lot of positive movement in creating awareness around mental health issues. This was arguably kicked off back in 2007 by rugby playing legend/rugby coaching disaster John Kirwan who, in a series of highly successful TV awareness campaigns, strolled along a beach and opened up about his own battle with depression.

It's easy to forget how impactful this was. For better or worse New Zealand idolises the All Blacks. So to have a bona fide All Black legend talking bluntly and directly about how he was sick and if you were sick too that was okay was genuinely startling.

Since then the conversation around mental illness has undoubtedly changed for the better in this country, with a lot of good work being done by a lot of good people to dismantle the harmful preconceived notions and stigma that surrounds it.

Still, there's no escaping the fact that it's all been ... well, a little earnest. Soft focus, soft music, soft voices. Ya know, that sort of thing.

Netflix's new comedy Lady Dynamite blows all that stuff to smithereens.

The loosely autobiographical show is a brightly coloured explosion of manic intensity that presents an entirely accurate yet simultaneously entirely exaggerated portrayal of comedian Maria Bamford's life with bipolar disorder.

It's a frenzied, mind-bogglingly surrealistic half-hour of disparate LOLs that will leave your head spinning as you try to wrap your sane mind around the insanity you're watching.

That's because the show, which was co-created by Arrested Development creator Mitch Hurwitz, also blows apart traditional sitcom structure.

Much like Hurwitz's previous cult hit, all the familiar sitcom tropes of learning, journey and growth are twisted and contorted into barely recognisable shapes. Although here it goes far, far further than Arrested Development ever could.

Characters frequently break the fourth wall to speak directly to camera, reference their part or even go behind the scenes of the series. Each episode is also crammed with visual and verbal non-sequiturs, mad random occurrences, cut-away gags, comedic flashbacks, the odd decapitation and faux ads for a Japanese product called Pussy Noodles.

It's unique and one of the most inventive shows to come out in a long time, Netflix's freedom from censors and commendable approach to creator freedom allowing Lady Dynamite to cruise right past any boundaries of good taste and decency and just keep going.

I could explain what I mean but instead I'll just tell you that the terrific second episode is titled Bisexual because of Meth and that the fourth episode, Jack and Diane, features a lengthy and uncensored breakdown and analysis of the appropriateness of using the dreaded C-bomb in polite company.

"It's a term of endearment," Bamford tells her horrified date after it's dropped into conversation by fellow comedian Patton Oswalt, who is playing himself playing an actor on the show (if you follow me).

"It's so bad no one would ever say it," she says, before adding the kicker. "That's why you can say it."

If all this is sounding a little out there, well, it's not. It's a lot out there. In fact, it gets positively hallucinatory at times. It's not unusual for Bamford to be briefly and inexplicably replaced by, say, a little girl or a lamb, before being swapped back in.

It's a strange and unstable show that would be not much more than a frivolous curiosity if it weren't for the flashbacks to Bamford working through the impact and effect that her depression and subsequent breakdown had on her and her family.

These scenes, shown in a cold blue after Oswalt's first episode recommendation that she "use colour as a time signifier", is where the show returns to earth. The wintry blue chill of both the past and her mental illness work to envelop and swamp the bright colours of her post-recovery present.

It's a hugely effective visual metaphor that lends a sombre gravity to events. When a hyper-manic Bamford crumples onstage during a live performance it's heartbreaking to see her helplessness take hold and to watch her excitable spontaneity and unbridled creativity drain away.

Without this serious slant the show would still be a wild ride of goofy and inventive adult humour but these moments give the show its equilibrium and make it so much more than another forgettable telly show.

Lady Dynamite is positively mental and crazy funny. It's the first truly bipolar sitcom. And I mean this as a compliment of the highest order.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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Karl Puschmann is an entertainment writer for the New Zealand Herald.

A pop culture junkie, Karl has spent his career writing about the important things in life; music, film, television, comics and video games. He was editor of a popular music rag for five years and has since written regularly for every local culture/arts/lifestyle magazine worth a damn. His recent expansion into travel writing has flung him far, far from the comfort of his couch and into that bewildering place known as the ‘outdoors’. He is also currently endeavouring to make sense of the world by reviewing it over at critikarlreviewstheworld.com

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