The comedian Tig Notaro’s stand-up set Live, recorded in 2012, was a candid retelling of a hellish year in her life—a life-threatening battle with pneumonia, followed by the death of her mother from a freak accident, followed by the end of her long-term relationship, followed by being diagnosed with breast cancer. It was a spontaneous piece of bravura storytelling, made all the more gripping by the fact that Notaro could actually mine great jokes from the awfulness of her recent experiences. Now, her new Amazon show One Mississippi is aiming to do the same, dramatizing her return home to bid farewell to her mother while dealing with a cancer diagnosis. Just like Live, it’s a comedy—but a sometimes extraordinarily depressing one.
One Mississippi is the latest entry in an ever-expanding world of half-hour TV comedies that deal with difficult, downbeat story topics. You’re the Worst detailed its protagonist’s battle with clinical depression, Bojack Horseman is an animated show about a selfish narcissist that is anything but whimsical, and Amazon’s Transparent is a bracing, challenging work that is nonetheless unsparing about its ensemble’s many dysfunctions. Though her comedy can be heartbreakingly personal and raw, Notaro has always been a gentle storyteller, a dry-witted but affable presence who succeeds onstage by humorously defusing even the saddest stories. One Mississippi is true to her personality as a performer: It explores painful topics, but with intense empathy for both its characters and its viewers, as if holding their hands through its toughest moments.
As a piece of stand-up performance, Live was a largely unplanned recollection of Notaro’s personal crises. She had emerged in the alternative-comedy scene as a deadpan master of the absurd, someone who would devote a whole national TV appearance to dragging a stool across the stage or who would do an impression of “curtains opening” by breathing stiffly through her nose into the microphone. After her terrible year, she told The New Yorker, she appeared onstage at the L.A. club Largo, and her life story just poured out of her; “It felt so silly and irrelevant to think about that stuff, observational jokes about bees and stuff, in light of what was going on with me,” she said. “It’s weird because with humor, the equation is Tragedy + Time = Comedy. I am just at tragedy right now.”
In that formula, it seems that Notaro has finally arrived at something closer to “comedy.” Her cancer is in remission after she underwent a double mastectomy. She’s also married to the actress Stephanie Allynne, who recently gave birth to twin boys, a journey she covered in last year’s Netflix documentary Tig. There’s an almost therapeutic self-awareness driving One Mississippi. It squeezes many of Notaro’s real-life hardships into an even tighter timeline, then digs in deep, exploring her personal journey through illness and grief while also unpacking the complex family dynamics at work in her suburban Mississippi hometown.
Notaro is playing a character called Tig Notaro, tweaked slightly from a stand-up comedian to the host of a The Moth-style radio show where she shares personal stories from her life. It’s a slightly clunky framing device, and Tig’s occasional monologues into the microphone often serve the show poorly: One Mississippi’s narrative works better when it isn’t trying to connect the thematic dots too clearly. The same goes for Tig’s L.A. girlfriend (played by Casey Wilson), an obvious airheaded stereotype who seems immediately doomed as a long-term romantic option for her wry, witty partner. It doesn’t help that Allynne, Notaro’s real-life wife, pops up as a possible love interest named Kate, though perhaps only the most die-hard Notaro fans will instantly make that connection.
These more outsized figures might have been the work of One Mississippi’s co-creator Diablo Cody, the writer and director behind films like Juno and Young Adult and the TV series The United States of Tara. Cody can be a wonderful writer, but she prefers wilder storytelling twists and extroverted characters, which makes her an odd match for Notaro’s understated approach. Notaro is quite charming in the lead role, but she’s more often than not a restrained presence. This makes sense for the autobiographical story being told, but it means One Mississippi can be quiet and slow-moving. Though the half-hour running time on every episode helps with that, the efforts to push things along with slightly bigger personalities sometimes feels jarring.
Aside from Notaro, the main standout of One Mississippi is John Rothman, the gruff character actor viewers might recognize from one of a thousand small appearances in television and film, who plays her stepfather. If this is a tale of emotionally guarded people, Bill is inside a fortress, primly telling his wife’s children that he’ll have “have no legal connection” with them the day their mother dies. In a different show, this would be shorthand for a character’s cruel dismissiveness, but Rothman plays it as if Bill is offering comfort, as if the lack of bureaucratic worry might help. In fact, the most compelling arc over the course of the season is Notaro’s halting attempts to connect with Bill, and it’s in these silent, withdrawn moments that One Mississippi really thrives. Like Notaro’s stand-up, One Mississippi leads with the tragedy—but it’s the way it guides viewers through that tragedy that makes it memorable.