Thursday, June 9, 2016

Issues: Flaked Meets Lady Dynamite

Maria Bamford stars in Lady Dynamite, current streaming on Netflix.

“You've got a serious platitude problem.” – Dennis to Chip, Flaked.

"I saw her on Netflix. She works really hard to destigmatize mental illness. Really brave." – an unnamed South Sudanese warlord, reflecting on Maria Bamford's career, Lady Dynamite.
There are two shows currently streaming exclusively on Netflix which, while having a surprising number of features in common, in the end could not be more distinct. Both involve the outsized talent of writer/producer Mitch Hurwitz (Arrested Development), and each features a comic actor in a very personal role, portraying a character struggling with decidedly unfunny issues. Flaked stars Will Arnett (also Arrested Development) as a 40-something recovering alcoholic and AA leader, and Lady Dynamite stars comedian Maria Bamford in a loosely autobiographical story of her struggles with celebrity and mental illness.

Netflix premiered Flaked in March and Lady Dynamite showed up three weeks ago, and both are the first fruit of the multiyear deal Hurwitz signed with Netflix in 2014 after he joined with the streaming channel the previous year to bring back his Arrested Development for a belated fourth season. He's on board with Flaked as executive producer, and he co-created Lady Dynamite with Pam Brady (co-writer of South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut and Hamlet 2). Perhaps proof that more Hurwitz is better Hurwitz, in practically every way, Lady Dynamite is the better show: it is more original and ambitious, riskier and more personal, more alienating and more engaging, and (perhaps the only thing that truly matters) consistently entertaining. Lady Dynamite also succeeds in being many things at once: a satire of celebrity, an insider comedy about L.A., a pointed and surreal entry into living with mental illness. Flaked, on the other hand, barely succeeds at being one thing at all.

Will Arnett co-created, wrote, and stars in Flaked, currently streaming on Netflix.

For me, the best of Will Arnett's three failed sitcom ventures since Arrested Development was the one that didn't even survive its first season, Running Wilde (2010-11). Wilde was also, not coincidentally, the one of the three that was co-created by Mitch Hurwitz. Arnett's established emotionally-stunted man-child on-screen character (perfected as G.O.B. Bluth on Arrested) worked best in Running Wilde, as did his chemistry with Keri Russell, who showed some surprising comedic chops. Arnett is already the voice of the washed-up TV star and equine lead of Netflix's animated BoJack Horseman, which has emerged as perhaps his best non-Arrested Development role – a series which, in a much more irreverent way also tackles alcoholism, self-sabotage, and L.A. culture.

Flaked is clearly Arnett's most personal work to date, with the actor writing all eight episodes of the show's first season. Arnett, 15-years sober himself, has certainly a strong place to begin with a story about a man of his own age struggling with sobriety, and his character Chip, we are told early on, has recently celebrated his 10-year AA chip. (Of course, as I write that sentence, however, some of the Flaked's lack of subtlety may become somewhat apparent to you.) Set in the small Los Angeles neighbourhood of Venice Beach, Flaked is part portrait of beachside community, part character study of a recovering alcoholic, part dark comedy. And this is where its problems begin: it's got many parts, but it hasn't quite decided what it is as a whole.

To its credit, Flaked does have its ambitions, and there are certainly many aspects of the series that ring true. But ironically the one thing it does well, it does too well, too soon: it successfully pathologizes Arnett's well-trodden sitcom persona. Chip, we learn almost immediately, has more of a lying problem than a drinking problem, and he uses glibness and humour to deflect others, and himself, from the sad truths that make up his life. Ten years out of a failed marriage, his days are filled with AA meetings, brief sexual encounters with the many young broken women who come through his beach community, and his completely non-functioning furniture business. (He doesn't seem to so much make stools – he certainly doesn't sell any – as talk about making stools.) All of his energy goes into maintaining his "King of Venice Beach" role for the quirky denizens of his neighbourhood – schnorring his way into his friend's house, reciting empty self-help platitudes at proper intervals, and holding new AA members to commitments that he himself rarely keeps. And this is all almost immediately apparent. The problem is that for the first few episodes – as the banal happenings of Venice Beach are portrayed – the series still seems to need us to be, at least partly,  amused by his one-liners and cruel dismissals of others.

Will Arnett and David Sullivan in Flaked.

I was reminded early on of Punch Drunk Love (2002), P.T. Anderson's uneven deconstruction of the petty and anger driven man-child character that Adam Sandler peddled through most of the 90s. Whatever the failings of that film (and they are legion), it did succeed in making a benign and sometimes amusing character genuinely tragic. And it turns out surprisingly easy to do the same for Will Arnett's: Flaked quickly transforms the say-nothing glibness made the comic actor funny and likable in his other roles into patently pathological and narcissistic behaviour. Had the series truly owned that, it could have been something both powerful and unique. But Flaked wants it both ways: in the early episodes especially, Chip's flip sarcasm punctuate many of the scenes and is often the only thing that can carry our interest forward – but those moments are anything but funny. Regularly sad, sometimes even frighteningly uncompassionate, and often plain callous, Chip is profoundly unlikable precisely in those moments.

When the series first premiered in March, I watched and then quickly forgot about the first episode, and I suspect I wasn't alone. Not funny enough to be a comedy, and not nearly human enough to be a drama of any weight, Flaked was easy to set aside. I only returned to it a couple of weeks ago, and my initial impression held true for the first four episodes, which were a slog to get through. Clearly not a comedy, it seemed to be a drama almost by default – but the superficial interactions of its characters, perhaps designed internally by each to keep the world and themselves at bay, also succeeded in keeping me from giving a damn about their lives.

The cast is solid, but the characters they are asked to portray are broad and paper thin – all outline with little colour or shading. (Heather Graham, as Chip's estranged almost-ex-wife, is almost criminally wasted.) Chip's friend and housemate Dennis (David Sullivan) is an early standout exception, due in part to the fact that he has the thankless role of being the only one who sees through Chip's façade, giving the viewer a place to stand and someone to identify with for those frustrating first episodes. (Kirstie Alley also shows up, in a whirlwind, single-episode appearance as Dennis' unstable, oversexed mom, to deliver some of the season's most madcap and sincere moments.) But then, when the series shifts gears midseason, that virtue turns against him as the story now wants to let Chip grow, and Dennis' capacity for insight becomes a blindness to Chip's (suddenly sincere) struggles to evolve.

Flaked is ultimately an uneven and strangely paced series. The first half feels wandering and directionless, full of characters who lie to themselves and others, often about seemingly inconsequential things. And then, around the fifth (of eight) episodes, some key secrets come out and the intrigue suddenly ramps up, including a plot involving encroaching investment into the community that's linked with Chip's evolving back story. There's no denying that the second half of the season is much more watchable than the first, and the sudden burst of authenticity by its central characters finally helps ground the narrative, but it is too little too late. One of Chip's ready platitudes, "life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated," could be a summary of what is often frustrating about the series. If it's renewed for a second season, I don't expect I'll be returning to Will Arnett's vision of Venice Beach.

Lennon Parham and Maria Bamford in Lady Dynamite. (Photo: Saeed Adyani)

If Flaked is a lesser show because of its main character's allergy to self-awareness and accountability in any form, at the centre of Lady Dynamite is a person who knows herself and fearlessly owns her own shit. The surrealistically structured but loosely autobiographical Lady Dynamite stars Maria Bamford who, in the tradition of TV comedies from Seinfeld to The Sarah Silverman Program to Louie, plays a character named Maria Bamford. (Prior to this series, my own experience of Bamford was limited to a handful of guests spots on Scott Aukerman's Comedy Bang-Bang podcast and, IMDb now informs me, her voiceover work on PBS's WordGirl.)

Bamford worked directly with Hurwitz to develop the series and the result is an unabashedly off-kilter mixture of surrealism, satire and sincerity that all adds up to an addictively entertaining comedy. It took me weeks to finally get through Flaked's eight episodes, and I rolled through the dozen Dynamite episodes in 36 hours. The main storyline has Maria returning to Hollywood after a mental breakdown and brief stint institutionalized in her home state of Minnesota. Surviving both her manic rise to fame and a dramatic descent into obscurity, she is determined to return to L.A. and make a new, healthier and less frantic, go at show business. ("I can talk to people on park benches. Can you book that?")

Despite the presence of Will Arnett in Flaked, of the two series it's Lady Dynamite that most shows Hurwitz's fingerprints (especially with its judicious use of quick and sometimes repeated cutaways so familiar to fans of Arrested Development). But Hurwitz fans are likely in for a surprise: if Arrested Development perfected and exaggerated the sitcom convention of emotional stasis, Lady Dynamite regularly challenges those expectations. Here growth, emerging self-understanding, and a genuinely rich interior life are the norm – though admittedly mainly for Maria, who's the beating heart at every stage of the story. Comparisons can, and should, be made to Louie – both in its capacity to find humour in just about anything and in the feeling of raw and unvarnished intimacy it creates – though visually and tonally the two shows could not be more distinct.

Bamberg and Hurwitz are tackling one of the few remaining final frontiers of comedy. Normally reserved for more dramatic vehicles, and certainly not unrestrained absurdist comedies, mental illness would seem to be funny only at its most insensitive and broad. (And comedic depression one would have thought would be simply impossible by definition.) In Jessica Jones, Netflix has recently dramatized surviving trauma and PTSD with sensitivity and power. Television has also, for example, creatively addressed mourning and loss (see Awake and Six Feet Under), but these more universal struggles have provided few usable models for material like this, which is not only less commonly understood but isolating by its very essence. Maria, however, in the persona she portrays here, somehow communicates that pain and alienation, without sacrificing any accessibility.

Maria Bamford, with Blueberry and Bert (right), on Lady Dynamite.

Lady Dynamite succeeds precisely by embracing its subject matter fully – not only in content but in form. Its episodes are structured around the ups and downs, the hypomania and depression, that characterizes Maria's specific form of (type 2) bipolar disorder. Moreover, it introduces the audience to it slowly, using now familiar meta-conventions to demonstrate the challenges the story itself poses. (The conceit, implied in the early episodes, is that this very series is the one she is currently working on developing.) At first I was concerned I'd tired quickly of those fourth-wall-breaking moves – the irony being that, more often than not, too much media self-awareness cannibalizes more human forms of self-awareness – but here those neo-Brechtian moments aren't simply a too clever trope, but actually part of Maria's own self-consciousness and more evidence of her sincere attempts to bring her fragmented selves into a kind of union – the struggle to bring her celebrity, her comedy, her family and friends, and her inner life together.

What is ultimately most surprising about Lady Dynamite is that for having a medically diagnosed unbalanced lead character, it regularly achieves what could be called an anarchic balance. It accomplishes this by its tripartite structure, with every episode jumping between the three stages of her recent adult life. (An early self-referential scene establishes this convention before our eyes.) Every episodes has three parallel but related stories: her early manic phase filmed with a too vibrant bulldozer splash of colour, her institutionalization in Minnesota in blue tones and workaday greys, and the current phase filmed more or less realistically. The three eras are tagged Past, Present, and Duluth, as if the last were a place out of space and time. (One feature with binds all the time periods together is her aged, and ageless, pug Bert who remains her steadfast advisor and confidante. The relationship with Bert, voiced by South Park and Lady Dynamite writer Kyle McColloch doing his best Werner Herzog, peaks emotionally and comedically with a dreamlike woman-and-dog duet of Gordon Lightfoot's "If You Could Read My Mind.") Having established that structure, the series more or less sticks with it, but each episode stands firmly on their own and builds greater intimacy with Maria and her story. Though clearly the current plot line is primary (its challenges are what call up the particular moments from the previous periods), from a viewing standpoint each period has its own independent continuity and direction. (The one outlier story, in which Maria temporarily lets go of her anxieties over her sanity to worry, briefly, about whether or not she's racist is forgivable for providing Mira Sorvino with one of the most head-shakingly fun meta-moments in the season.)

The idea that a self-referential comedy – the very question of what makes something funny is one of the show's many recurring themes – could also be one of the warmest and most human comedies of the season is a testament to Maria Bamford as a performer and writer and, it truly seems, a person. As clichéd as it sounds, Lady Dynamite must be seen to be fully appreciated. There is so much more to talk about, but what I really want to do is shut up, ask you to launch your Netflix app, and just watch it.

 – Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture. Mark has been writing for Critics at Large since 2010. 

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