Bipolar disorder—mental illness in general—has not fared well in popular culture. “Crazy” patients and “crazier” doctors populate story lines based on stereotypes and stigma. The last few years have seen some evolution toward more realistic portrayals and narratives, including the movie Silver Linings Playbook and the Broadway musical Next to Normal, telling human stories of illness rather than just punchlines.
Add to this burgeoning cannon a new Netflix comedy, Lady Dynamite, by the comedian Maria Bamford. Ms. Bamford has been diagnosed with Bipolar II and has struggled to balance her illness, her personal life, and her comedy career. The show is loosely autobiographical—the main character is a comedian named Maria Bamford who is trying to get her life back on track after a series of hospitalizations for her bipolar disorder. The cast of characters includes fictionalized versions of her family and friends, as well as a number of well-known comedians and performers who join the story at various points.
The episodes move between time periods—flashbacks to her recovery in an outpatient program back home in Wisconsin intertwine with the present time in LA as she is getting back into working and dating and just generally having a life. At various points, the characters speak to the viewers, breaking the “fourth wall,” to comment on the show itself. There are fantasy sequences that filter in and out of the storyline. It shakes out brilliantly—original material that is laugh out loud funny and often heartbreakingly real.
Happily, while Lady Dynamite is a successful comedy, it also shatters stereotypes and stigma. Ms. Bamford’s bipolar disorder is central to her character and the story line, but it’s not her whole story. She is a capable, effective person whose life was interrupted by a serious illness. For the most part, her friends and family treat her bipolar disorder as an illness that needs care. There is one long term friend who shames her and traffics in stigma and damaging language about her illness, but she stands in stark contrast to the rest of Ms. Bamford’s support network.
Some of the flashbacks to Ms. Bamford’s active illness will resonate for people and families living with mental illness. The hypomanic symptoms can be funny, but she is never made to look like a clown or a fool. One short scene, in her family’s kitchen in Minnesota, vividly evokes a moment of aching sadness and emptiness, as well as her father’s efforts to relieve her pain, while living with his own sorrow.
Recovery is handled realistically as well. The challenges Ms. Bamford faces while she is getting back into her life—especially in trying to balance managing her recovery from illness with rebuilding her career—hit the right notes. She is trying to work but not too much. She lives with fatigue from her medication. She grapples with trusting her own instincts yet keeping vigilant for symptoms that can affect her judgment.
I sometimes find storylines that are realistic about mental illness to be hard to watch—too painful. But I find Ms. Bamford’s telling of her story energizing—vibrant human story telling about someone living with bipolar disorder, but also living her life. I recommend it highly. Let me know your thoughts!