You can’t throw a stone or turn on an indie movie or TV show without hearing the silky, booming voice (and then seeing the flecked, impeccably groomed beard) of one Fred Melamed. Ever since In A World… came out a few years ago, the alt-comedy community has been casting him as Stern, Overpowering Male Figure in everything. New Girl and Casual stand out to me, since I watch those shows regularly, but his IMDb page is bursting at its electronic seams. He’s cornered the market.
Which is why his role in Lady Dynamite is so refreshing. He’s a Male Figure, sure, but he’s neither Stern nor Overpowering. In fact, the show plays with the implicit gravitas of his voice and forces him into a role you wouldn’t expect. He is Bruce-Ben Bacharach, agent and fanboy to Maria Bamford, and it’s utterly delightful. The dignity he oozes in literally every other part he’s done is completely erased here, and what’s left is a nervous, bumbling, obsequious, occasionally high-pitched (read: tenor) man who’s still figuring out his shit. He’s a terrible agent.
Melamed is also my favorite part of Lady Dynamite, which I hate to say I found both hit and miss. I love Bamford deeply, and I echo nearly every comedian’s sentiments when I say that she’s one of the most brilliant standups alive — seriously, go see her, it’ll change your life and your perception of how vocal chords work — but as I’ve said about other brilliant standups, sometimes the stage is their best medium for a reason. Bamford knows herself incredibly well, and knows what she’s capable of handling — which is actually something she addresses really poignantly in the show, about how it’s okay to say no to gigs — and I completely get why she took this opportunity to make a show. But the way her mind works is almost too complex, too multi-dimensional, too far-reaching to fit within the confines of a TV series. There’s nothing that can do justice to her comedic genius besides standup.
Admittedly, the subject matter she chose to cover didn’t make it easy. She decided to explore her own journey with mental illness, an incredibly brave and important selection, and aspects of the show were incredibly enlightening. I loved, for example, how the lighting, tone and wardrobe of the show changed according to which stage of her life she was in. Back in Minnesota, going through her lowest bouts of mania, the screen and her pajamas were every shade of grey. In LA, in her high points of mania, the colors seemed exaggerated, as did her smiles and her hair and even the enthusiasm with which she spoke. In present-day LA, everything evened out. But switching between these three timelines got confusing very quickly, especially because Bamford played herself in all three scenarios. I’m glad she did, but because she’s got this incredibly youthful face and presence, it was difficult to tell which storylines preceded the other, and therefore if she was still experiencing a manic episode.
Netflix also didn’t bestow the show with a huge budget, which is unfortunate because I think it would have been beneficial to have a little more money, especially considering the scope of the storytelling. A lot of scenes fell flat because of bad CGI, giving the show an undeserved campy feel. Bamford deserves better than that, as evidenced by the huge number of guest stars who obviously weren’t doing the work for money — Mary Kay Place and Ed Begley, Jr. played her parents, Ana Gasteyer played another agent, Lennon Parham and Bridget Everett played her “friends,” Jason Mantzoukas and Jenny Slate played therapists, Mo Collins played her sister, Dean Cain and Ólafur Darri Ólafsson played love interests. The list goes on. I think she also deserved to give some of the good lines to herself. On stage, she has such a singular presence, but on the show she’s basically a straight woman to the zany antics of those around her. Ólafsson, as her boyfriend, seems to be the only one who’s more grounded than she is, which is maybe why they’re perfect for each other. He lets her be the funny one.
“Loaf Coach” is my favorite episode of the lot, since it contains appearances from the very precious Mantzoukas and Slate. It also made me laugh aloud more than other installments, which is unfortunate. Bamford live makes you laugh and gasp on a loop — it’s a visceral experience. I wanted more of that from her TV show, but most of what I got was a few chuckles and sighs. Maybe Season 2 will be better.