'One Mississippi': TV Review

One Mississippi H 2016

One Mississippi H 2016

Not many laughs, but lots of semi-autobiographical absurdism.

Tig Notaro's Amazon half-hour series is another smartly told reflection on her health and personal struggles.

Tig Notaro has made personal cataclysm and tragedy into comedic modern art, reproducing and reimagining her own struggles and misery like Warhol soup cans.

Back in 2012, Notaro was fighting breast cancer and an unrelated colon disorder, while also going through a breakup and mourning the loss of her mother. This annus horriblis spawned an instantly legendary stand-up set at the Los Angeles club Largo, a career-changing comedy routine, countless podcast stories and was featured in the backdrop of multiple documentaries and the foreground of the acclaimed Sundance doc Tig.

Each recounting of the story has been reflected through Notaro's mindset of the moment from the darkly matter-of-fact "Hello, I have cancer" beginning of the Largo show to the romantic optimism of Tig, which focused heavily on Notaro's relationship with future wife Stephanie Allynne. The story has been the same, but the shadings and sensibilities have shifted and evolved.

The latest evolution is Notaro's Amazon series One Mississippi, which would be most accurately described as "semi-autobiographical."

One Mississippi premieres Friday on Amazon, starting with the pilot that debuted back last fall and was co-written by Notaro and Diablo Cody, with Nicole Holofcener directing. In this incarnation, Tig is a story DJ, a radio host combining personal tales with a musical playlist. When her free-spirited mother has a freak accident and is on the verge of death, Tig leaves Los Angeles and returns to her hometown on the Mississippi Gulf Coast to say goodbye and grieve with her brother Remy (Noah Harpster) and stepfather Bill (John Rothman). Bill is well-intentioned, but also oddly distant and prone to saying awkward things like noting that they're now no longer literally a family. Remy is a Civil War re-enactor and high school teacher somewhat entrenched by a past as a star high school athlete. If Remy can't move beyond his history, Tig has been avoiding confronting her memories of her mother and dark childhood traumas.

Only six half-hour episodes, the first season of One Mississippi skillfully weaves actual pieces of Tig's biography in with fiction that's sometimes wish-fulfillment, sometimes nightmare bait and sometimes just parallel to reality. In flashbacks and fantasy sequences, Rya Kihlstedt plays Notaro's mother, there for memories untapped and important conversations left unspoken. Often present to add humor in the form of jokey Los Angeles stereotyping, Casey Wilson guest stars as Tig's girlfriend Brooke. And Allynne appears as a radio engineer, whose name may be Kate, but whose role in the ongoing One Mississippi arc is very similar to the role Allynne played in Notaro's life. If you've heard and seen earlier variations of Notaro's stories, you'll recognize punchlines and get visualization for certain anecdotes, but there's also great interest in seeing how Notaro and the show's writers and directors are twisting and flipping reality, since no matter how accurate the emotions and certain beats might be, Notaro didn't actually return home to Bay Saint Lucille for months of recovery, mourning and family realignment. 

Those who haven't followed Notaro's story each step of the way will get a pretty good encapsulation of her deadpan sensibility from One Mississippi, which means it's unlikely to be a match for every wavelength. She likes to take audiences through a dry, laconic build-up and then, having brought listeners to the middle of the desert, drop in a punchline that can sometimes feel like an oasis, inviting laughter, or else a mirage, a detour into greater darkness or philosophy. With One Mississippi, there are things that simply aren't going to be funny, whether it's dealing with death or molestation or other family secrets, but the show isn't wallowing in tragedy. Notaro and the writers offer release in the form of absurdism or carefully placed emotional outlets, but I think I nodded in understanding or raised my eyebrow in wry amusement more than I laughed.

Notaro isn't necessarily an actress of great range, but she's a smart writer and producer with insight into how to get the most out of her leading lady. While not always stone-faced, there's a little Buster Keaton to what Notaro does, countering outlandishness around her with a sad stillness. You can put Notaro in a ridiculous situation, be it a moment of surrealism or a dream sequence or a garish small-town Mardi Gras celebration, and she can ground it and bring humor through underplayed incredulity. Turning Tig's stepfather Bill into a man whose stoicism — Rothman is a marvel — exceeds Tig's own was a brilliant conceit that helps Notaro carve out a contrast. Adding in the sweetness of Notaro's chemistry with Allynne also was smart.

Buster Keaton, of course, paired his melancholy earnestness with unrivaled physical expressiveness. Notaro isn't going to scurry across a moving train or execute a flawless pratfall, but there's a different physical courage to the way she utilizes her weight loss and particularly her post-mastectomy body to push the story and speak in ways that dialogue cannot. One Mississippi is all about Notaro, but it's also stripped of ego.

Another fine entry in Amazon's "It's not exactly a comedy, but based on running time, you'll look for chuckles even in things that might otherwise be distressing" half-hour genre, One Mississippi is effectively quiet and understated in many of the ways that Transparent is demonstrative and confrontational, while both shows share an interest in family histories and personal pain. Six episodes is exactly the right number for this first season, establishing Notaro and the show's rhythms and its voice and opening things up for further adventures that have echoes of Notaro's life, but will probably become more separate in seasons to come.

Cast: Tig Notaro, Noah Harpster, John Rothman
Creator: Tig Notaro
Premieres: Friday (Amazon)