The burgeoning subgenre that critic Matt Zoller Seitz recently dubbed “comedy in theory”—half-hour TV programs that aim for the heart and gut as often as the funny bone—has so far tackled mental illness, addiction, gender identity, systemic oppression, and abduction. Telling the story of a dysfunctional family dealing with the passing of its matriarch (among other traumas), Amazon’s One Mississippi adds “grief and grieving” to that list of not-just-for-dramas-anymore topics. Based in part on the life of comedian Tig Notaro (who co-created the series with Diablo Cody), that gauntlet should be familiar to anyone who’s followed Notaro’s career since the celebrated performance that became her 2012 album, Live.
One Mississippi comes from the “every part of the buffalo” school of stand-up, which in recent years has made multi-hyphenates of amateur sociologist/Master Of None creator-star Aziz Ansari, Drama Desk nominee/Sleepwalk With Me director-star Mike Birbiglia, and New York Times best-selling author/Jim Gaffigan Show creator-star Jim Gaffigan. The gist of the series’ inspiration, which Notaro has previously tackled on-stage, in audio, in nonfiction films, and in a book: A pair of life-threatening prognoses—cancer in both of her breasts and an intestinal infection—overlapped with the unexpected death of her mother and the end of a long-term romantic relationship. It’s a bulk order of pain that Notaro has rendered into laughter multiple times over, but One Mississippi is unique in that it reenacts as well as relates. Names, locations, and occupations are changed for the purposes of storytelling—the show’s Tig, for example, works in radio, not comedy—and the writers’ room brought some of its own experiences to bear, but this is still as close as anyone will come to walking those difficult miles in Notaro’s shoes (and her head).
The latter more than the former: One Mississippi is produced by Louis C.K.’s Pig Netwon shingle, and the show shares Louie’s propensity for inner-thought interludes. That genre-bending FX series is more frequently formally adventurous, but its influence is apparent whenever One Mississippi turns its POV over to Tig’s psyche. Exam rooms become scenes of vulgar pageantry and Willy Wonka-esque gadgetry; a cemetery gives way to a slumber party. The series’ use of flashback, meanwhile, recalls Amazon’s most prestigious half-hour series (on which Notaro recurs), with Tig’s childhood memories piecing out a larger secret much in the same way that Transparent shuffles through the Pfefferman family archives.
The flashbacks occasionally threaten to hobble One Mississippi’s present, as certain narrative moves can’t be completed until deep, dark secrets are dredged up from the past. It’s not always effective, but it is affecting, and it suits the idea of Tig gaining an understanding of her mother that wasn’t possible when the woman was alive. The series spreads its grief evenly, and in a nonuniform fashion: Tig has her memories, complicated by that traumatic secret but given new life through her anecdotal radio show. Her stepdad Bill (John Rothman) falls to pieces when the family cat goes missing, but it’s obvious he’s missing something (and someone) else entirely. Brother Remy (Noah Harpster, a writer and performer on Transparent) regresses—chuckling with his sister about a “duty”/“doodie” pun—and self-medicates with booze and food.
All of which is to say: One Mississippi has big laughs, but the source of some of those laughs and much of the subject matter would make for a difficult binge. Local color—in the figurative (supporting-player kooks) and literal (the greens, yellows, and purples of carnival season) sense—aside, the tone is dark and the humor is bone-dry. More than the memoir fodder, this is where the series most reflects its star and co-creator: Notaro can play a wide range of emotions, but deadpan remains the strongest among them. It’s more than Tig expressing incredulity toward the residents of Bay Saint Lucille; it’s Notaro’s acute sense of when to inject some levity into the grimmest of circumstances. (After the finale, you’ll never hear the idiom “Swept off her feet” the same way again.) She meets her match in Rothman, who does next-level work as a dispassionate square working through some of life’s most complex feelings. Bill calls Tig a “smart aleck,” which might be the most damning insult in his vocabulary; she succinctly sums up her stepfather up when she describes him as “The only person on the planet that can get a cat on a schedule.” The weird energy he brings to the character is a perfect fit with the co-creator’s comedic voice.
Sympathetic figures like Bill and Remy keep the show’s locals from tipping too far into yokel territory. A handful of good ol’ boys show up to raise a ruckus now and again, but One Mississippi never gawks for too long. Its homecoming story is more akin to Cody’s Young Adult than something like Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, nudging Tig toward some sort of peacemaking with the place she once called home. It left her with a lot of painful memories, but it also shaped the person she would become. Tig suffers loss after loss, but the scar tissue builds up eventually.
If any of those losses get short shrift in the first season, it’s the romantic one. Casey Wilson is a prominent presence in the pilot as Tig’s soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend Brooke, but she disappears for long stretches of time and the couple eventually breaks up off-screen. There’s a rebound in Mississippi, but that storyline too carries a hint of afterthought. As one of a whopping two current TV comedies with an out lesbian at its center—following Seeso’s delightful Take My Wife—putting Tig’s romantic life on the backburner feels like a wasted opportunity. But if the last four years of Notaro’s career have proven anything, it’s that she has no intention to shoulder the burden of representation for lesbians, women, cancer survivors, intestinal-infection-havers, or grieving daughters. She’s just a person—just a person. One Mississippi has its flaws, but it goes further than any of Notaro’s previous work to show what it’s like to be that person.