Three episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
All it took was one documentary and an uproarious, gutting stand-up set to make me a fan of Tig Notaro. Before I was assigned to cover the comedian’s material last year – Tig, a tender, genius little doc and Boyish Girl Interrupted, her standup – I hadn’t know much of anything about her. Turns out that I was a fan without really knowing it, thanks to tiny, memorable turns in movies like In A World…, but I had no idea of her tragic backstory, and how well it informed her current sense of humor, which she weaponizes with an angry-yet-honest precision in both the doc and stand-up.
Where that precision has evaporated to in her new autobiographical series One Mississippi, I’m not sure. In it she stars as herself, returning home to support her family as her mother faces euthanasia, and she herself faces a long road to recovery thanks to an extremely rare colon disease called C-Diff, on top of which is an existing spot of in-remission breast cancer. The show is honest to the real Tig’s backstory and arc, but its extraordinary nature is diluted into indie movie melancholy without any of the heart and verve that even her stand-up reached in one-third of the time.
The show starts off as Tig returns to her home in southern Mississippi to help her brother Remy (Noah Harpster) and step-father Bill (John Rothman) deal with cleaning out her childhood home, and all of the usual drama that comes along with the death of a loved one. Eventually that means introducing girlfriend Brooke (Casey Wilson) to the family, and also navigating unexpected hurdles, like figuring out what to do with her mother’s favorite chair, now bloodstained thanks to its proximity to the late matron on the night of her fatal fall.
Weird, specific tangents like that help One Mississippi feel more robust than it actually is, but they’re too unevenly spread out and cutely tied together to pack a punch (that chair’s ultimate destination is simple, but predictable). As someone who came into Amazon’s new series completely sympathetic and endeared to Notaro already, One Mississippi is also oddly antiseptic, especially for a show trying to be a rich slice-of-southern-life as this. But maybe that’s the kernel of the problem here: in her documentary and stand-up, Notaro felt effortlessly brazen and was increasingly hilarious because of it. Her show’s dramatization of a real-life tragedy-come-comedy honors neither side of her truly unique personality, and as such doesn’t produce much in the way of tears or laughs.
It could be that the show is building up to a bigger emotional epiphany later in the season, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that even her barely-an-hour stand-up special, Boyish Girl Interrupted, reached more of a poignant, bold, and beautiful denouement with more economy, and without any of the comedic and emotional potholes dotting One Mississippi‘s story. Episode 3 ends with a similar reveal and dramatic plot point as her stand-up, but, like the rest of the show, it’s blanketed with such a muted and distant emotional tone that it doesn’t hit all that hard. I wanted to feel something more than I did – Tig, the Netflix doc, chewed me up and swallowed me whole last year – but even the based-on-reality of it all can’t supplant a lack of dramatic deftness.
So what’s left over is hope for Notaro’s winningly restrained and sarcastic sense of humor, which is further shortchanged by One Mississippi‘s plainness. She’s got one or two solid, Tig-worthy lines (“If it makes you feel any better, I was getting molested while she was ruining all of your family vacations,” she deadpans at one point), but her life and her resilience remain notably absent. Although the show is initially more focused on the death of her mother rather than Tig’s own illness, the entirety of her shtick – using biting, sometimes uncomfortable humor to fight back against, well, everything – should have remained One Mississippi‘s bread-and-butter, but it isn’t.
Weirder still is co-creator Diablo Cody (Juno, Young Adult), whose snarky touch makes sense on paper paired with Notaro’s dark humor, but the totally unmemorable dialogue and stock characters suggest that the duo nearly cancel one another out. Some course-correction on the comedy front comes in the form of bizarre dream sequences where Tig imagines, for example, the nightmare version of what a potentially life-saving procedure (involving fecal transfers) would entail. The most interesting possibility for these asides is that they stem from Tig’s emotional and physical sickness, but they just aren’t very funny, and they only further add to the disconnected, awkward tonal shifts.
More potentially impactful are scenes when the comedian envisions her late mother Caroline (Rya Kihlstedt) in and around her childhood home – daydreaming about trips to Africa and playing with Tig and Remy in the backyard. In these little flashbacks, Kihlstedt is one of the two solely remarkable, memorable things in One Mississippi, and she becomes more interesting than most of the currently-living characters as Tig uncovers secrets about her mom’s past the longer she stays in her hometown.
Notaro, as the other remarkable aspect of the show, still can’t be ignored. She might have placed herself in a cliché script about a big shot returning to her podunk little town to learn life lessons available nowhere else, but it’s hard to watch her and not be enthralled by her diminutive state housing an anything-but-diminutive attitude.
That attitude does shine through in fleeting moments throughout the first few episodes, but One Mississippi ultimately feels like the fictional version of a true story – with comparative fictional emotions – rather than an honest depiction of Notaro’s struggles. It’s also hard, and this is an all-too-easy criticism to make nowadays, to recommend a show that’s not great, but not terrible, in a state of TV as crowded as this. There are better places to find 30 minutes of comedy tinged with sadness, and One Mississippi had a leg-up because its sadness-tinged-comedy comes from actual truth, but you’d be better starting off with Notaro’s other emotionally resonant and comedically scathing material than spending even two Mississippi’s here.
A back-to-back binge of Notaro's Netflix doc and genius standup will produce a funnier, more emotionally resonant picture of the comedian's fascinating backstory than anything in the first few inconsistent and drab episodes of One Mississippi.