Friday, May 27, 2016

Lady Dynamite, Masters of None, and Comedians Playing Themselves in Peak TV

"Lady Dynamite" is so zany and out there that it was a little difficult to get a grasp on it when I first watched it. Ironically, my difficulty with the material wasn't because there's nothing like it on TV but because I saw traces of nearly everything else on TV: The cutaways of "30 Rock", the awkward attempts at social justice statements from "Master of None", the use of a comedic veneer to mask trauma that's shown on "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt", the 4th wall randomness of "Man Seeking Woman" or "Family Guy", and the feminist celebration of woman as proudly dysfunctional adult from "Broad City". 
Welcome to Peak TV: Where the overabundance of innovative voices on TV makes it harder to stick out and a comic voice as original as Maria Bamford is penalized for not coming out on the airwives five years ago.
Besides the myriad of recognizable influences there's the obstacle that Bamford's show can loosely be classified into the most overused genre on television: Comic actors playing thinly veiled versions of themselves trying to make it in showbiz inevitably providing a satirical take on Hollywood along the way. It started with "The Larry Sanders Show" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and the idea has gotten so saturated that it seems like the go-to template for anyone wanting to stretch their act into a TV show if they don't want to put much energy into the pitching session. The genre is starting to rapidly sour with unique acts like subversively sexually explicit music duo Garfunkel and Oates and hyperobsessive pop culture freak Billy Eichner getting shows that add zero value whatsoever to what started out as great acts.  
The good news here is that any initial complaints about the show are a lot less valid after a scattershot pilot that's loaded with every gimmick imaginable. The show gradually starts to even out and make more purposeful decisions over when to break the 4th wall. By the fifth or sixth episode, Bamford starts to deploy these gimmicks with a mastery that makes "Lady Dynamite" one of the most wall-to-wall enjoyable shows on TV.

It helps to separate the show from other entries in the "comedians playing themselves" genre in that Bamford isn't trying to advance her show business career at all. At times, she seems blissfully ignorant of exactly how well she's doing (her faux sister Susan is alarmed at how much she makes at a studio session as if she heard it for the first time). In another episode, she turns down Judd Apatow because in that particular episode, her new focus on life is about doing as little as possible in life. After a few episodes, one can better make the argument that this even if it's a clichéd genre, Bamford's work is the ultimate personal statement: Maria Bamford is simply figuring out her life and way of expressing it on screen as she goes along.

It also helps that so many of the plots are loopy enough to match Maria Bamford's personality: Her uncertainty is matched by characters that either swing towards an extreme opposite (Mo Collins as pushy childhood friend Susan, Ana Gasteyer as Karen Gillam, Annie Mumulo as a highly aggressive dog trainer) or similar aimlessness (Fred Melamed is highly enjoyable as an agent who reeks of casual desperation, in the second episode she dates a bisexual recovering meth addict who can't distinguish the difference between bisexuality and polygamy).

Masters of None

In the era of Peak TV, shows are being given out like cars to the Oprah studio audience and one consequence is that while there are a lot of great comic voices out there, not everyone is exactly qualified to sustain an audience as the lead of a television show. Whereas Maria Bamford can will her way through a hackneyed premise on sheer personality, Aziz Ansari (assuming he doesn't have the acting abilities of Peter Sellers up his sleeve) would be questionable as a lead for a high-concept series.
It's not that Ansari isn't a deservedly successful comedian. He was an excellent addition to the mix on "Parks and Recreation," he is a successful author, and has a worthwhile stand-up show worth watching. There's just very little variation from Tom Haverford to "Master of None" lead Dev and that character was originally created as a foil to the altruism of Leslie Knope.
What also doesn't help is that it seems like Aziz Ansari's vision for his show is as bizarrely uneventful as the in-universe pitch for "Seinfeld." Yes, technically things happen, but it seems as if the show's goal is to drain as much dramatic tension as possible so that the show is as close to nothing as possible. In other words, Aziz/Dev just wants to be chill but there's a such thing as overdoing it. The show also doesn't seem to have any game plan for making you laugh: The long-term setups lack comic complexity and the short-term jokes are more at a dramedy-level than an actual comedy.  
Oddly enough, the show did get great reception but I suspect that has more to do with the increasing prevalence of the social justice movement among TV critics. Ansari is a minority that's not often seen on TV and his episodes tackle such hot button issues as tokenism in casting, sexism, and the issues that come with being the children of immigrants. In some of these cases, the show comes off as overly preachy because Aziz's take on those issues is the only memorable thing about the episode.
For contrast, "Fresh Off the Boat" is a show I immediately latched onto because of the unique cultural perspective of a minority family. I could see people being attached to Dev for the same reasons, but that doesn't excuse such a show from phoning it in everywhere else.

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