This article discusses plot points from Seasons 1 & 2 of Lady Dynamite. If you haven’t seen it yet, go watch it. It’s well worth it. Seriously.
Don Quixote is widely considered the birth of the modern novel for a huge number of reasons, but one of its most lasting contributions is the way it dragged metafiction into the popular consciousness. Stories had been called stories before, but Don Quixote is a book particularly fascinated by the idea. Don Quixote is driven mad by books and fantastical stories, and his understanding of the world is skewed from those around him, but as early as the first chapter Cervantes insists he has found the “true” story of Alonso Quixano, the story we’re about to read, in credible sources: they are a story written in Arabic and translated by fellow author Cide Hamete Benengeli, compiled by Cervantes for our convenience. It’s a fictional tale framed as a true story, it’s real author discovering it from a fictional author, and the subject of said fictional author’s is again the “real” man Alonso Quixano who renames himself Don Quixote and goes on a half-imagined adventure. Stories, it says, exist somewhere between reality and make believe.
It seems almost too obvious to be an enormous revelation. We know, inherently, that stories are not carbon copies of reality. Even in relating a walk home to a friend on the phone we are subjective, pruning details that don’t fit the larger narrative, giving selective attention to certain smells, sounds, and sights. Since Don Quixote this divide has hovered over literature as well: maybe the story on the page isn’t an exact replication of what happened. We need to read between the lines to parse out the real story, because the story on the page is going to adhere instead to a more subjective narrative bent.
To call Lady Dynamite the direct result of Don Quixote is probably just a teensy weensy tiny bit hyperbolic. But more than any television show I’ve ever seen it sacrifices the “narrative truth” for a more in between the lines reading of the events of any episode. Essentially, Lady Dynamite lets the emotional arc of each episode take the front seat, and the actual narrative continuity and coherence falls to the wayside whenever need be.
Lady Dynamite doesn’t explicitly break it’s fourth wall nearly ever, but it does quite a few times in its first episode, drawing attention to the fact that it is a television show but, more importantly, a television show based on true events. Generally television based on a true story relies on context outside of the medium to inform the viewer it’s (mostly) true. Think of American Crime Story: The People V. O.J. Simpson – the only reason we know that story is true is because we already know it. Lady Dynamite was likewise publicized as a relatively “true” account of Maria Bamford’s stardom, a manic episode, and her attempt to make a comeback while managing her further mental health. But the show makes a big deal out of it within the context of the show itself, and that’s because the show deals heavily with narrative as technique. Knowing O.J. is based heavily on true events might help us appreciate the show more, but it’s not what the show is about. Lady Dynamite is a lot about the narrative experience of Maria’s journey.
I’m not trying to be convoluted by saying “narrative experience” as opposed to “plot”. Lady Dynamite purposefully drops plot when it feels it needs to, because it’s much more concerned with communicating how Maria Bamford feels, and how it feels for her to communicate those feelings. The narrative has a general forward thrust, for sure, but it’s more emotional than plot point to plot point. Things that normally bother me such as blatant in your face surrealism and meta comedy work seamlessly in the show precisely because it’s embraced a radically different type of storytelling, and instead of feeling like fancy tricks for their own sakes the surrealism and meta jokes are in service to Maria’s experience.
Again, the show wears this weird middle-ground of reality on its sleeve from the opening sequence. The show begins with Maria appearing in a saturated sunny hair commercial, which is quickly revealed to be a delusion. A woman approaches her and explains that she has a show now, and Maria turns directly to the camera and expounds on how exciting it is to have a show at this stage in her life. She goes towards a van with the logo for Lady Dynamite. In the very next sequence, Maria is playing a fictionalized version of herself who has just returned from the mental ward. This version of Maria doesn’t have a show. Already we’ve drifted through “three realities”, and we won’t return to two of them ever again (at least not in the two seasons released so far). That’s fine. Who cares? The feelings are still felt throughout – we know Maria is prone to fantasy, prone flipping through characters and emotions and to deeply subjective interpretations of the world around her. The events of that first sequence don’t matter nearly as much as the lessons and emotions we take away from them and apply to the rest of the show.
The show sticks to its guns on that front, always, with emotions trumping plot coherence. Later in that same episode Patton Oswalt stops the show cold to give Maria some advice on how to make her show, but Maria’s friend Larissa (Lennon Parham) stays in character and snaps as Oswalt. It doesn’t feel like two sets of realities blending together because we know at this point to read between the lines. We, the audience, are looking at the world through Don Quixote’s eyes. We’re just smart enough to know there’s an underlying “base narrative” to it all, that this is just an interpretation of the “real” events that happened to Maria. If she needs to frame it with talking dogs and scenes where she’s a sheep while her manager Karen Grisham (Ana Gasteyer) talks to her, so be it. We get it, generally!
Except Lady Dynamite takes it a step forward, like many late postmodern books (but like very very few postmodern television shows or movies). Truth, it says, might be what we make it. There might be a collective narrative we all agree to, but that doesn’t make Maria’s account any less true. In Don Quixote we’re explicitly told what Quixote mistakes for giants are actually windmills. In Lady Dynamite we’re shown giants and expected to be able to recognize them as windmills, and though the show doesn’t go so far as to say they aren’t windmills it also doesn’t totally ignore the idea that they’re giants as well. Both can exist, because Maria’s experience is equally valid as anyone else’s, even while she’s struggling with her mental health. If her emotional journey and “reality” happen tangentially, but aren’t exactly tied together step by step, that’s because her emotional journey is just a little different, and we have to respect that. Wobbling between realities no longer feels like an issue but instead serves as an expression of her journey. It’s because of this we are unphased when Maria’s dead pug appears to perform a tap number absolving her of her guilt over the pug’s death. It probably didn’t actually happen, but it also probably more or less did. When the numerous Karen Grishams (including one Maria “hasn’t met yet” chronologically) merge into a guinea pig at the end of season one (watch this show) and reveal themselves to be a “hairy little golem that represents my [Maria’s] false manic engine,” it feels like a true moment, even if the other Karen Grishams have all already interacted with other people. When Karen Grisham shows back up at the beginning of Season Two, still a fully fleshed out human capable of reacting with others, well, that feels true too. It doesn’t matter that they’re mutually exclusive because they’re both emotionally appropriate.
Lady Dynamite steers with its emotions. It’s a bold take on television and a bold way to introduce an unreliable narrator who is doing their very best to communicate the truth of their situation. There’s a reason television doesn’t use unreliable narrators very often. It’s damn near impossible, and the only real way I’ve seen around it previously is to “flash back” to the scene and reveal a more objective reality. Lady Dynamite never resorts to such a cheap trick, and still manages to surpass numerous previous false narrators by telling us a story we know is both blatantly false and crushingly true.