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Lady Dynamite Blows Up

It’s hard to say exactly what the title of Maria Bamford’s new Netflix series is meant to signify. It could be Bamford’s manic depression—her sense that, at any moment, everything in her life could explode. It could be her fear, common among introverts, that if she doesn’t please everyone around her, her fragile relationships might come crashing down like a demolished building. Or it could be the fact that Bamford, who has toiled in C-list obscurity for years, is finally, at long last, blowing up. Created by Pam Brady (frequent Trey Parker and Matt Stone collaborator) and Mitchell Hurwitz (creator of Arrested Development, on which Bamford appeared as DeBrie Bardeaux, a recovering meth addict and Tobias Fünke’s love interest in season four), Lady Dynamite is currently available on Netflix among its new crop of original series. The show features plenty of recurring and guest stars, including Ana Gasteyer, Lennon Parham (recently of Veep), Bridget Everett, Ed Begley Jr. and, my personal favorite, Dean Cain. (The list goes on, but this last name was particularly important in my own surrender to the charms of Lady Dynamite: Three episodes in, and not yet hooked, I learned that Superman himself was about to make an appearance, and the 13-year-old in me compelled me to keep watching.) While Lady Dynamite does inevitably feature some stand-up-comic-show clichés, it is in many ways unique. Like other comedians’ shows before it, it is loosely based on Bamford’s real life. She really did grow up in Duluth, Minnesota, where part of the show is set, and like her character (also named Maria Bamford) she spent time in therapy, diagnosed with bipolar II disorder. She is, of course, a comic in real life, and one who is very similar to the hesitant, self-conscious, people-pleasing person she plays on TV. All of this is interesting enough, but it’s the way that Lady Dynamite combines surrealism, meta-fiction and autobiography that makes it truly exciting. Maria Bamford in Lady Dynamite. Whether or not you like Bamford’s TV character is crucial to whether you’ll enjoy the show. Each episode starts with Maria’s agent, Bruce Ben-Bacharach (Fred Melamed), offering her a bad gig—a spot in a Japanese commercial for something called Pussy Noodle, for instance, or the host role on a show called Lock Up a Broad, in which women are locked up and made to apologize for things like not having dinner ready on time. Maria’s moral compass tells her these projects are wrong—they’re misogynistic and racist, they promote irresponsible behaviors and go against her core beliefs—yet when pressed even slightly she caves and does whatever she believes she has to do to make other people happy. The same is true in her personal life: Bamford would rather say “I love you” or propose marriage than break up with a boyfriend and hurt his feelings (though in this particular case the proposal was to a slightly puffy, but still pretty hot, Dean Cain, so that was probably the right choice). In the case of her girlfriends, Maria will buy a house she doesn’t want or go on a date with a bisexual meth addict rather than disappoint. To be honest, such obviously bad choices and low self-esteem can be a little hard to take as a viewer. It prompts a lot of head shaking and eye-rolling. Bamford’s character may not be the smartest on TV, but she is well-intentioned, and it is in that gap—between altruistic motives and a lack of common sense—that the humor of Lady Dynamite can be found. The show is not laugh-out-loud funny, at least not to me. It’s more of a “comedy in theory”—a term coined by Matt Zoller Seitz in a recent article for Vulture. According to Zoller Seitz, it is comedy, not drama, which now excavates and represents the most troubling aspects of our society. In the Lady Dynamite episode “White Trash,” for example, Bamford stars alongside Mira Sorvino and the Lucas brothers in a fictional sitcom in which the two African American men play garbage collectors and the two white women belong to the wealthy White family. Bamford, trying to be racially sensitive, talks to the writers and has the roles reversed, resulting not only in smaller parts for the brothers, but also in extremely sexist dialogue for the women. In the episode “Josue,” Bamford feels guilty about the amount of money she has made doing ads for Checklist (a Target stand-in) and agrees to work for the company’s charity in Mexico. Teaching English to Checklist factory workers, Maria fails to recognize that the textbook she’s teaching from serves primarily to reinforce unfair and unsafe labor practices, reminding the workers (in English) that their managers are always watching and that good employees keep their mouths shut about safety violations. Topics like these provoke discomfort and anxiety rather than the easy laughs of a show like Friends or How I Met Your Mother. Like its Netflix brethren (Master of None, Orange Is the New Black, etc.), Lady Dynamite’s purpose is not to provide a break from real life, but instead to mine the humor available in a truthful representation of reality. The manic-depressive pace of the show contributes to that end. As we move between scenes of madcap energy (indicated with sparkly screens as if from a silent movie filmed in the 1970s) and those that take place during Maria’s mental breakdown (represented by a tonal shift from bright colors to a dulled gray-blue), we are given some sense of what it might be like to suffer from bipolar II disorder. One of the things that makes mental illness so difficult, Bamford has said, is that people don’t talk about it. So she’s talking about it and, on Lady Dynamite, giving the viewer the chance to feel it, too. It feels funny, even if you might not laugh. Photos: Everett Collection

by Emily Burns Morgan

Jun 29, 2016

Stuart Davis: In Full Swing

Most people know far less than they should about Stuart Davis, one of America’s most important modern artists. Yet if you can simply understand how the plucky 20th–century painter managed to have his cake and eat it too, you’ll be well on your way to comprehending his significance. Exactly how he did this and why it made for such noteworthy art is enticingly revealed by Stuart Davis: In Full Swing, a peppy new exhibit currently on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City through September 25. Born in 1892 in Philadelphia, where he was influenced by the city’s newspaper illustrators, Davis developed an early dedication to art’s role as a reflector of contemporary social conditions. He went on to train with Robert Henri, leader of the Ashcan School, and adopted the movement’s style of urban realism, with an emphasis on content over composition. But after seeing the 1913 Armory show, which introduced him to European modernism, Davis became enamored with formalist experimentation, fauvism, cubism, and abstraction. Convinced these modern ideas constituted a vital new direction for art, Davis ignored the notion that his long-standing commitment to social art (which prioritized message over medium) stood in stark opposition to his new love for abstraction (indisputably governed by formal principles). In 1921, with his series of cubist-style paintings abstracting tobacco-packaging imagery, Davis achieved the seemingly impossible task of marrying two oppositional artistic approaches. He employed the flat geometric shapes of cubism in paintings that commented loudly and pointedly on everyday life in America: commercial advertising of mass-market products was proliferating, smoking had become a popular habit stateside and their rampant distribution to U.S. soldiers during World War I had made cigarettes an American symbol.   With these paintings, whose titles and images include the names of national cigarette brands and companies, Davis took his first step toward establishing his signature, groundbreaking union between modernism and the belief that art must pertain to the society from which it emerges. Barbara Haskell, co-curator of the Whitney exhibit, describes Davis’s work as “a rare synthesis: an art that is resolutely abstract, yet at the same time exudes the spirit of popular culture.” While all of the works on display merit extended viewing—they’re the kind of pieces you find more and more in the longer you search—the best treasure hunting is in New York Mural (right), a 1932 work created when the Museum of Modern Art invited Davis to make a mural about post–World War I life in America. Mural-making was very popular in the U.S. during the 1930s, due to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal initiatives, which provided governmental support to artists by commissioning them to make murals for public buildings. Though realism was still the preferred style of most American painters at the time, Davis brought a modernist look to the five murals he made. In the flat, overlapping forms of New York Mural, you’ll find fun references to local politics, particularly New York governor and 1928 Democratic presidential candidate Al Smith. See if you can spot Smith’s trademark brown derby hat and bow tie; a banana alluding to his campaign song “Yes! We Have No Bananas”; a champagne glass symbolizing his support for Prohibition’s repeal; and the tiger head and tail representative of his affiliation with Tammany Hall. Yet to genuinely appreciate Davis’s art, you need to make sure you have a good time. Equally unfashionable as his allegiance to art’s social function is Davis’s belief that art should spotlight the positive aspects of life. Davis wanted his paintings to reflect modern life in such a way that when you view them you find the joy in the world around you. Stuart Davis: In Full Swing is on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art through September 25. It will subsequently be on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., from November 20 through March 5, 2017; at the De Young Museum in San Francisco, April 8 to August 6, 2017; and at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, September 16, 2017, through January 8, 2018. Photos courtesy of Whitney Museum of American Art

by Lisa Jo Sagolla

Jun 27, 2016

This Week, in Limerick: No Bill, No Break

Thursday, June 23 No Bill, No Break In a boisterous, motley array, They sat-in on the House floor. Hooray! They sang “We'll overcome” But the foregone outcome Was dictated by the NRA.

by James Waller

Jun 24, 2016

Insider Interview: Benedicte Guichard of Cleeng

In this new series of interviews with industry thought leaders, Mediander explores emerging developments in the fast-changing video on demand (VOD) and streaming TV space. For our kickoff, we spoke with Benedicte Guichard of Cleeng, based in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Cleeng is a service that streams, monetizes and protects live events for major companies in the U.S. and Europe, and it just recently completed a project with HBO. Can we start with how Cleeng “got to now,” so to speak? Cleeng is pretty much CEO and founder Gilles Domartini’s idea and vision. Gilles and I had known each other originally from working with Packard Bell and NEC. He was so convincing when he explained it to me and the three other founders, that we all signed on. Back in 2010 there was a lot of discussion about paywalls in the press, and Gilles, after years of building e-commerce platforms for Apple and Philips, came up with a much better solution. Cleeng would allow people to preview an article or video before buying it, and then give access upon purchase. In this way, media houses would allow people access to their websites (and keep their advertising revenues) but still charge for their content. Then Donald Res, our CTO, who had worked for years with Gilles at Philips, joined Cleeng. We finally launched at The Next Web Europe 2011. We signed significant deals within the online publishing industry, but Cleeng was growing slowly. Then in 2013, we received a phone call from Viaplay, a Scandinavian broadcaster that was looking for a pay-per-view solution for a boxing match. Our solution was already working well for video content, so we enabled Viaplay to charge boxing fans to access the fight live online. Seeing the success of this live event was a true wake-up call for Cleeng, and we realized the potential of live events online, especially for sports. So in 2014 we completely pivoted the company to build the best dedicated e-commerce platform for live video. Screen shot of Cleeng.com. I understand you recently worked on a major boxing event with HBO, the WBC and Golden Boy Promotions. That’s quite a deal. Tell us about it.  Boxing is the sport that drives the pay-per-view industry, and one of the biggest organizations in the boxing world, Golden Boy Promotions, reached out to us with a challenge: securely handle and market a U.S. mega-fight via online PPV—in one week. Our team was proud to deliver, on time, a robust landing page capable of hosting 100,000 visitors with a redundant live-streaming infrastructure as backup and the advanced watermarking security to prevent piracy. The fight took place in Las Vegas, and we are in Amsterdam, so unfortunately we could not meet the boxers, but we were all up at 4 a.m. on D-day to watch the fight online. It was a success. We prevented all piracy activity and any revenue loss for the publisher. One thing that surprised us is that we recorded more transactions from mobile devices than from PCs. Given the unexpected mobile response, how has that informed your initiatives in streaming video? Our data shows that mobile usage of both live and on-demand video is rising exponentially, and we are doing our best to ensure that video quality on mobile is exceptional. Multi-device accessibility has always been one of our focal points. People love using streaming media devices when they are home, and we are working on strengthening our service in that area. And, based on the feedback of our American audience, we developed our own Cleeng Roku channel, and we even helped a few of our client broadcasters do the same. The Cleeng team in their Amsterdam office. Are concerts and music festivals an opportunity for Cleeng? For sure. Live-streaming of concerts aims to reshape how we consume music. By making it accessible online, musicians and broadcasters can reach larger crowds and grow revenue. In addition to democratizing events, live-streaming has the potential to add an extra dimension for the fans. The mass acceptance of mobile, live-streaming apps and virtual reality means that viewers can get exceptional video content across devices and a completely different experience. This could include behind-the-scenes video, a 360-degree experience, celebrity interviews and more. In the U.S., the major festivals like Coachella, Bonnaroo and Made in America are already being streamed online, and fans love it. One of the big positives is that live-streaming does not cannibalize the already existing event business. Instead, the video and live event models are complementary, and we are seeing that both online and offline ticket sales are on the rise. Now the challenge for broadcasters and the event organizers is to find the ideal business and revenue model. Technology drives this business forward, so it’s fair to say that the potential is there and up for grabs. Can you tell us about the business models that you are considering now, and compare that to what your team thinks it will look like in five years? Currently publishers mainly use pay-per-view, subscriptions and passes to sell their content. Pay-per-view is a proven revenue model for one-off live events, especially within the sports and business (conferences) verticals. Subscriptions and passes work best for clients involved in broadcasting entertainment (movies, music, league-based sports). But we have noticed publishers are becoming more creative in designing flexible packages to attract and nurture loyal viewers. Our business model, for example, is based on a revenue share. We charge a fee per transaction, but we also propose an enterprise license for large publishers that require more flexibility and expect to generate significant revenue all-year-long. More and more, we think that there will be a need in the future to increase and improve the sale of videos. Our ambition is to become the go-to company for video publishers. Thanks to the expertise we are building, we are positioned to be the leader in content and pricing strategy, conversion-rate improvement and piracy reduction, all of which helps the content owners make the most of their video assets. For more information on Cleeng, visit its website here. Photos courtesy of Cleeng.

by David Pfister

Jun 22, 2016







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