Lady Dynamite: Confronting TV’s Mental Illness Stigma

Maria Bamford knows firsthand the kind of lifelong effects that mental illness can impart on a person, as she so brilliantly explores as the creator and star of the Netflix Original Series Lady Dynamite. The show, loosely adapted from Bamford’s stand-up, chronicles her career over the course of three separate time periods: her big break advertising campaign with Target (changed to CheckList for the show), her subsequent mental crisis and recovery in her hometown of Duluth, and the present, in which she returns to LA to begin anew. It’s a bold storytelling mechanic for a half-hour comedy, but one that succeeds tremendously while offering a unique take on living with mental illness.

Much like Maria’s stand-up, Lady Dynamite never shies away from exploring the mind of its star, putting conditions like bipolar disorder, anxiety, and OCD into the spotlight. Thanks to Bamford’s finely tuned performance and some smart and effective production design, each segment of the show’s timeline serves as an indicator of Maria’s mental health. In the past, Maria’s rising career is driven by her untreated bipolar mania, and each brightly lit and vividly decorated scene pulses with her uncontrollable energy. This is sharply contrasted by the Duluth scenes that find Maria in a colorless world of washed-out blues and grays, face downcast and sullen as she battles thoughts of suicide and the urge to give up.  Even the pacing of these scenes can seem sluggish, as if everything she encounters mirrors her depression. The present day Maria falls somewhere in between, focusing on her efforts to find a balance between mental health and her career. Though she’s more stable after her time in rehab, she still struggles to regain her confidence and reconcile her life with her mental needs. The trichotomy of these storylines makes for some interesting plot arcs and episode themes, but even more so it gives audiences a realistic glimpse at life with mental illness.

Many shows have addressed  forms of mental illness in the past, to varying degrees of accuracy and success. Schizophrenia routinely gets conflated with homicidal mania on procedural dramas, and depression has long been a staple of saccharine sitcoms and their “very special episodes” as a throwaway plot for cheap emotional response. Some disorders, like OCD, are watered down into cutesy personality quirks, while others like Tourette’s syndrome are routinely and openly mocked. Lady Dynamite, in contrast, approaches the subject with maturity and respect, finding humor in it without belittling Maria or her conditions. Mental illness isn’t the monster-of-the-week, nor is it a plotline to be resolved and forgotten; it’s a lens through which Maria and her audience view the world.