The year 2013 in the life of comedian Tig Notaro is perhaps one of the most well-documented moments of recent culture.
Beginning with her stunning album Live recorded at Largo amidst her ordeal of cancer, intestinal disease, the end of a relationship, and the loss of her mother, Notaro and her collaborators have explored almost every angle from which to view and understand this moment. “Live”, a spot on This American Life, the Netflix documentary Tig, and most recently her memoir I’m Just a Person all excavate the same set of events and facts, but as with anything beholden to facts, it somehow falls short of the truth.
Notaro’s answer to this is One Mississippi, a six-episode Amazon half-hour series that is perhaps best viewed as auto-biography-adjacent. All the core pieces are there, beginning with the death of her mother and her return to her home town. Those who have watched the documentary or read the memoir will recognize corresponding characters, but Notaro and co-creators Diablo Cody and Louis C.K. are wisest in their decision to skew just far enough from the facts in the service of emotional honesty.
In doing so, the show acts more as an exercise in confessional poetry than first-person memoir. Its melancholic tenderness is matched with Notaro’s trademark droll pragmatism. The comedy, and the attitude toward tragedy, is defined by a deep sincerity, but with a decided lack of sentimentality verging on absurdity. Dream-like sequences arrive just as the moment inches toward melodrama: a nurse bursting into laughter at Tig’s uncertainty of what to do with her mother’s body, a celebration with confetti and balloons as an oncologist declares Tig’s “Cancer of the Year,” and perhaps one of the most brilliant moments I have ever witnessed in media: a slumber party in a cemetery in which a group of women gab like teen girlfriends over their respective sexual assaults. These are things we should not laugh at, but Mississippi curates a space that reminds us and allows us to find levity in life (and death’s) darkest moments.
For its initial six episodes, the show does still seem to be finding its tonal confidence, though its structure is air-tight. Comparisons are inevitable between this and Transparent, but the most striking resemblance it bears is to the TONY-Award winning musical Fun Home in its function as a memory piece and an excavation of familial, specifically paternal and maternal, bonds. The most beautiful moments come between Notaro and her step-father Bill, played with an equal ache and charm by John Rothman. However, Notaro is most at ease as an actress in scenes involving herself and would-be love interest Kate (which makes sense, considering Kate is played by Notaro’s real-life wife Stephanie Allynne, who also writes for the show). Notaro’s sexuality is represented on the show as a matter of fact, but without a deliberate desire to be “refreshing,” simply with an understanding that there are bigger catfish to fry.
It is difficult to imagine the emotional labor and vulnerability it takes to be able to perform and relive the darkest chapter of one’s life, but by virtue of One Mississippi‘s one-step-removed storytelling, it serves almost as a daydream, a “what if” alternate reality that will allow Notaro, and the audience, the objectivity necessary to get to the heart of life’s most frightening and overwhelming truths.
One Mississippi is now streaming on Amazon Prime.