'Lady Dynamite' Takes the Crazy out of Mental Illness

It approaches bipolar disorder as multi-faceted and manageable, rather than something to live in fear of.

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Nov 28 2017, 1:00pm

Lady Dynamite’s pilot episode opens with comedian Maria Bamford, as a fictionalized version of herself, going to work. It’s an entirely unremarkable way to start a comedy series, except for the fact that days before Bamford marches back into her agent’s office, she was in the psych ward for treatment of her bipolar disorder. The series chronicles Bamford’s semi-autobiographical return to everyday life after a particularly catastrophic manic episode leads her to seek treatment at a mental health facility. At the facility, sudden, jarring flashbacks and the occasional hallucination blur the lines between the past, present, and future.

What happens when Bamford’s character leaves treatment, though, is far from the typical TV narrative. When her hallucinations and mania fade early on in the series, she attempts to negotiate a healthy work-life balance with her agent, and decides to reintegrate herself into her community by installing a neighborhood park bench. Lady Dynamite and its protagonist are undeniably quirky, but the show’s aggressively positive tone is rare for a TV show featuring a character with mental illness. It’s this hopeful tone that makes Lady Dynamite the most radically optimistic perspective on mental illness on TV.

Historically, film and television have used chronic mental illness as a plot device, a sinister backstory or mechanism to pathologize a character’s behavior. Tropes and archetypes like the tragically beautiful “Ophelia,” the dangerously hot sex maniac, the twisted genius, the woman who “snapped,” are offshoots of a “potentially highly stigmatizing” stereotype that contributes to a “still pervasive prejudice towards psychiatry and psychiatric illness,” says Steven C. Schlozman, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

Russ Federman, former director of counseling and psychological services at the University of Virginia and co-author of Facing Bipolar: The Young Adult's Guide to Dealing with Bipolar Disorder, co-signs. “I generally find that mental illness characterizations [in TV and movies] are inaccurate and unidimensional,” he says. “More often than not, most cinematic representations of psychopathology miss the mark, and in doing so, they perpetuate erroneous assumptions about mental illness.”

Despite slow progress in increased film and TV representation, the idea that people with mental illness are inherently dangerous is incredibly damaging. “I think over the last 20 or so years we’ve gotten more comfortable with psychiatric disease as the central theme of a story itself rather than an explanation of the characters’ behaviors in the stories,” Schlozman says, referencing Welcome to Me, As Good as it Gets, and Silver Linings Playbook as examples. Still, “psychiatric syndromes and perhaps, especially, mania...are often portrayed as dangerous or scary.”

Bamford’s character, however, is refreshingly human. She has friends, dogs, a house, a fulfilling career, and later on in the series, a healthy and loving romantic relationship with a man she ultimately marries—twice, on purpose. The overall “normalcy” of the character’s life, her hope for a happy future with her adoring husband, her unshakeable work ethic, are part of what gives Lady Dynamite its positive perspective. In the world of the series, living with mental illness is a multi-dimensional experience, and offers vast potential for recovery and joy. Bamford’s friends and family as portrayed in the series don’t love her in spite of her mental illness—they love her because she’s a compassionate, loving daughter and a good friend who occasionally invites raccoons into her home and chats with her talking pugs.

This (relative) normalcy isn’t surprising to people living with mental illness—people with mental illness live full lives, have friends, get married—but that reality is seldom shown on TV. Bamford’s character not only goes on living after her time in the psych ward, but goes on living well. Nowhere in the series is there a brooding shot of her staring longingly out a window at the falling rain, wondering where it all went wrong, or a pivotal moment where her husband’s love for her somehow makes her bipolar disorder disappear. As David M. Allen, writes in Psychology Today, “A person does not suddenly come out of a manic episode just because his [or her] romantic interest says something pertinent.”

Not only are one-dimensional portrayals of bipolar damaging to a broader social understanding of the mental illness; they’re also medically inaccurate. According to Shefali Miller, clinical assistant professor and chief of the bipolar disorders clinic at Stanford University, an individual living with bipolar disorder only spends 15 percent of their time in a manic state. Those with hypomania, a milder form of the mania associated with bipolar that's characterized by periods of impulsivity and hyperactivity, only experience an elevated state about 3 percent of the time. “There’s a misconception that bipolar is all mania,” Miller says. “The reality of bipolar disorder is depression. It’s is not a violent state of being, and it’s not something to be afraid of.”

That’s not to say that Lady Dynamite glosses over the often challenging reality of living with bipolar. Her time in the psych ward is bleak, and there’s a moment in the show’s second season when in the midst of one of Bamford’s episodes of “euphoric grandiosity,” as Schlozman describes it, her partner suggests he may need some time away from her. The flashbacks are frenetic, and sometimes take place as what might be described as an alternate universe, a plane and dimension found only in the realm Bamford’s thoughts, and accessible only to her. However, the series approaches these moments with an unabashed gentleness that portrays mental illness as something that’s multi-faceted and manageable, rather than something to live in fear of.

Following episodes of my own hypomania, I’ve looked back and felt ashamed of the times I impulse-bought a case of off-brand Kylie Jenner lip gloss and $300 worth of hair vitamins, but then I remember I impulse-bought a case of off-brand Kylie Jenner lip gloss and $300 worth of hair vitamins. Being able to laugh about that keeps me from falling into a shame spiral. In Lady Dynamite, people with mental illness want to laugh; at themselves, at their experiences, at their mistakes. It’s cathartic, and even life-affirming. As Miller tells me, dysfunction isn’t a “rule” of living with mental illness. With proper treatment, people living with bipolar and similar conditions “have a lot of hope, and a lot of potential to live a wonderful life.”

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