Brow Beat

Tig Notaro’s One Mississippi Is Funniest When It’s Most Painful

Tig Notaro in One Mississippi.

Amazon

Tig Notaro’s new Amazon original series One Mississippi is funny and engaging in direct proportion to the sensitivity of each scene’s subject matter: There are ingenious scenes about death and rape that innovate comedy; there are scenes about mental illness and bullying that feel at once uncomfortably real and brilliantly absurd; but then there’s the rest of the show—tired tropes and formulas that glue the good parts together into coherent half-hour episodes with plots and character arcs.

The show is based on Notaro’s own painful true story: Having recently received a double mastectomy to treat her breast cancer, Tig returns to her Mississippi hometown, Bay Saint Lucille, to be at her mother’s death bed, while she herself tries to recover from a potentially deadly infection. But the series’ central narratives and relationship arcs are not grounded in the unique specifics of her trauma. Instead, they seem designed to make Tig’s life into a recognizable story, like the kinds we see on TV. The prodigal daughter returns to her hometown with the intention of staying for only a short while when she realizes she has more ties here than she thought: Will she decide to stay or leave as she had planned? She’ll stay. Will her uptight and emotionally unavailable stepfather eventually warm up to her? He will, but he’ll show it in his own way. Will her brother go for the hot blonde? He will, but then he will realize that his dorky female friend who genuinely liked him was a better match all along.

On a global scale, the show is nothing new. But there are scenes, like the death of Notaro’s mother, that are so personal and painful, they demand a treatment beyond trope. In June, I wrote that Notaro’s memoir I’m Just a Person, which also tells the story of her mother’s death, deftly shows how the comedy and the tragedy of human suffering are inseparable and that each brings into sharper focus the reality of the other. There are many moments in One Mississippi that also demonstrate this with mastery and bravura. Tig’s mother has been disconnected from her respirator, and Tig is spending the night with her. Any breath her mother takes could be the last, and Tig wants to be at her side for that moment. But Tig also has relentless diarrhea because of her potentially fatal gastrointestinal infection. Tig tiptoes toward the restroom—her mother wheezes—Tig stops—her mother is still alive—reassured, Tig tiptoes closer to the restroom—her mother wheezes—Tig stops.

Historically, slapstick has been the domain of the physically healthy: The Three Stooges and Buster Keaton always bounce back, and even if their character is injured, their virtuosic performance reveals an underlying vitality. But in One Mississippi, we have a slapstick of the crippled and the dying, based on the real experiences of the crippled and the dying. There is no vitality, no physical virtuosity: a minimalist slapstick of tiptoes and breaths. And in this ingenious slapstick Tig, the actor, is re-enacting one of the most painful moments of her life.

Another scene that breathes laughter into a terrifying human reality is when Tig visits her mother’s grave. Tig’s mother appears in front of her, next to the grave. At first this seems like another one of the series’ trite cinematic devices: Throughout the series, her mother keeps showing up in her imagination to remind Tig of her loss and to offer loving words. But this time her mother spreads a blanket across her own grave, lies down with a pillow, and invites Tig to join her. During this imagined slumber party, mother and daughter talk and giggle about their first sexual experiences: Tig was molested by her grandfather, Tig’s mother had a relationship at 17 with her 35-year-old married art teacher. Other women in neighboring graves join the slumber party. One was drugged at a party, another lost her virginity and life in a gang-bang: “I got so much attention—that’s how I got here!” she giggles. Tig Notaro’s genius is evident—comedy inhabiting real human suffering in a way that shocks us and enables us to look head on at its truth.

But the most disappointing moments of One Mississippi are the ones that contort themselves to fulfill some abstract idea of what a “TV show” looks like. And these moments are often set in sharp relief because they occur in tandem with some of the show’s great strengths. Bill, Tig’s distant and obsessive-compulsive disorder stepfather, is played by John Rothman with detailed commitment and genuine affection for the character. Every physical position and posture expresses both his rigidity and concealed tenderness. His is a body awkwardly striving to meet the standards of an anal-retentive mind—it’s very funny and often touching. Nevertheless, Bill is used as a plot device in ways that minimize the character’s reality. Bill is deeply devoted to his cat, Bonkers, who goes missing partway through the season. Bill blames Tig for leaving the door open and remains deeply distraught about Bonkers throughout multiple episodes. But as soon as he find out that somebody else let out the cat, Bill apologizes to Tig and stops searching for Bonkers—appearing to forget about the cat completely. We are reminded that the supporting characters of One Missisippi only serve a purpose in as far as they relate to Tig.

Perhaps most revealing is the show’s treatment of Tig herself. Many of her lines are sarcastic quips or observational musings that sound like the opening of a stand-up bit (sometimes because they have been taken from her real stand-up). They are meant to draw attention to the absurdity of the world around her and the other characters’ behaviors. But this absurdity does not need to be pointed out. The quips just reduce Tig’s character to an observer without much of a personality but with a slight attitude. All of Tig’s real personality and creative genius has been transferred to the world of One Mississippi, leaving her own character somewhat empty. The same ideas that are so funny and vulnerable when Tig presents them as stand-up fall flat on TV because they’ve already been shown to us via the actions of the other characters. We no longer need Tig’s own voice to bring us into her reality; we’re already there.

The people, the illnesses, and the deaths portrayed in One Mississippi have had a defining effect on Tig Notaro’s life. She has been telling the story of the year her life came apart ever since it happened, in various forms: in her stand-up, in a documentary film, as a memoir. Every time, Notaro’s story reveals itself in a different way. Her insights cut deep and tickle at the same time. One Mississippi comes close to doing them justice, even as it bends too much to the clichés of TV drama. But beneath those clichés, the sharp truth of her story still shines through.