Tig Notaro’s half hour comedy One Mississippi dropped its first full season on Amazon Prime this month, and it’s well worth a watch. The series follows Notaro as a fictionalized version herself as she returns to her hometown when her mother dies very suddenly. Much like the real-life Notaro, her character has recently experienced an avalanche of tragedy and bad news, having lived through breast cancer and a double mastectomy, followed immediately by a debilitating intestinal disorder, C-Diff. As Notaro sifts through her mother’s belongings in her childhood home, she must reckon with her painful childhood, her mother’s secrets, and the distance of those family members closest to her, like her socially awkward stepfather, Bill, who reminds her, “We aren’t legally related anymore.” And yes, this is a comedy. One with a dark humor and fewer laugh lines than you might expect, but still a comedy.
Here’s why One Mississippi’s quick six episodes are worth a chunk of your streaming time.
One Mississippi is definitely a show for folks willing (or perhaps needing) to laugh at sadness and pain or who possess what we commonly call a dark sense of humor. At varying points the show manages to laugh about cancer, illness, death, child molestation, and even the terrifying commonness of sexual assault. It’s never at the expense of the victim (who’s usually the one cracking the joke), and rather than being horrifying, Notaro draws out the absurdities that arise in pain and grief—like the customer survey her mother received from the hospital where she died. First question: “Were you satisfied with our service?” The result of this attunement to irony is poignant, melancholic and funny, but never maudlin.
Tig’s Mississippi hometown of Bay Saint Lucille is very Southern, but never stereotypical. There’s plenty a Southern accent to be had, but the folks Tig grew up with—whether she feels a kinship with them or not—are never played as dumb and never used for a quick or easy joke. They do, however, have distinct personalities that make each of them absurd or funny in their own way, like her brother, Remy (Noah Harpster), and his Civil War reenactments (don’t worry, he’s a Union Captain), or the oldest man in town who takes the role of Mardi Gras King but can’t stop repeating himself. And then there’s Tig’s stepfather, Bill (John Rothman), who’s attempting to reach out to Tig and Remy, but instead doles out rigid reminders to turn off the hall light the second one exits the hallway.
Speaking of Rothman’s Bill, One Mississippi also boasts an excellent cast. Rothman plays Bill as funny as he is heartbreaking, and in the moments where he tries to show emotion or reach out, the struggle to change is evident in his pained face. It’s funny and sad all at the same time. As Tig puts it, “Bill is the only person on earth who could get a cat on a schedule.” Harpster’s Remy is full of sweet unspoken affection for his sister, whom he wishes would stay in town instead of going back to Los Angeles. Add to that the occasional Casey Wilson appearance as Tig’s girlfriend, and you’ve got cast packed with talented performers.
The show isn’t all dour gallows humor. There’s also surreal nightmare and dream sequences that can be both funny and horrifying as they reveal Tig’s inner fears—like that her cancer will not only return, but be “Cancer of the Year.” There are also more straightforward flashbacks about her mother, Caroline, that inform the questions Notaro is mulling over. Even though they’re always justified as the interior workings of Tig’s mind, they add a bit of surrealism to what could easily otherwise be a naturalistic drama with funny elements.
Did I lose you there with my pretentious heading? Yeah, sorry. But much about this show is quiet and contemplative, which shouldn’t be surprising considering it’s also executive produced by Louis C.K., king of the introspective dramedy. Throughout much of One Mississippi—most overtly in her character’s radio show—Notaro is subtly inquiring into whether we ever truly know those we’re close to, or if we simply see them as who we need them to be and whether we’re really incapable of handling life’s pain. She’s floored and angry to uncover her family secrets, and slowly begins to let those around her be who they are, whether or not she’ll ever truly know them as such.
Erica Lies is a writer and comedian in Austin, Texas. Her work has appeared in Splitsider, Bitch, Rookie Mag and The Hairpin. Follow her on Twitter.