Amazon Studios

Tig Notaro’s One Mississippi Brings The Pain

The show's existential frankness is admirable and bracing — and sometimes hard to get through

Forget Donald Trump’s candidacy — Tig Notaro’s One Mississippi (Amazon) is officially the hardest thing to watch on TV this year. Borrowing biographical details from the comedian’s life — most notably her mother’s sudden death and her own battle with breast cancer — the half-hour drama is built on the thematic pillars of mortality, mastectomies, and child molestation. Named after herself, Notaro’s L.A.-based radio-host character returns home to suburban Mississippi to take her mother, Caroline (Rya Kihlstedt), off life support. Available to stream on Friday, September 9, the six-episode first season feels like sitting with death for three hours.

The series is honest enough about dying to make us hear Caroline’s painfully hoarse last breaths — “I feel like I’m… listening to my mother drown,” Tig sighs — and to play with the latter’s anxiety that her mother might slip away during one of the daughter’s many trips to the bathroom. (Tig’s beat her cancer, but her lingering intestinal infection means frequent guilty pee breaks.) Though leavened by wry sarcasm, romantic optimism, and surreal fantasy sequences, the rest of the season focuses largely on grief’s complexities and confusions. Created by Notaro and Diablo Cody (and executive-produced by Louis CK), One Mississippi is ambitious in its sensitivity and candor. But its rarely discussed truths don’t make it any easier to endure.

Unhelpful with Tig’s mourning process is her straight-laced stepfather, Bill (John Rothman), who doesn’t mince words about their new relationship: “We have no legal connection now that your mother is gone.” Bill’s business-like practicality initially illustrates the absurd cluelessness that attends death, but it soon becomes clear that he sticks to the rules he knows because he doesn’t know how else to deal with his wife’s passing. Tig and Bill’s gradual warmth toward each other, which first has to overcome layers of mutual resentments and condescensions, becomes the season’s affecting emotional fulcrum. Tig’s relationship with her mother, too, undergoes uncomfortable changes as the daughter learns things about Caroline’s life that cast the dead woman in a cold new light.

Meanwhile, the story lines about Tig’s fear of her post-mastectomy body being looked at and the anger she still feels about her sexual assault by her grandfather decades ago are compelling arguments for the ongoing TV trend toward specificity and autobiography. If the exposure of Notaro’s mastectomy scars was triumphant in the 2015 Netflix documentary Tig, they’re revealed here in a wider array of contexts: gory, matter-of-fact, shameful, possibly erotic. Tig wants to keep her chest under wraps, but she betrays a need to discuss, even joke about, her molestation and its impact on her family with Bill and her brother Remy (Noah Harpster). It’s clear no one knows how to deal with this open wound, either: Bill and Remy can’t talk about it, further frustrating Tig, until she can’t help bringing it up when she’s thinking least clearly.

Unfortunately, the rest of One Mississippi feels half-formed. Other than some sublime Bea Arthur kitsch, Tig’s affairs offer little to the series. Her L.A. girlfriend (Casey Wilson) is too much of an airhead to be a believable match for the intellectual, no-bullshit Tig, and the love-interest-in-waiting is tipped off by being played by Stephanie Allyne, Notaro’s real-life wife. Tig’s KCRW show honestly sounds terrible, with the host rambling on about childhood memories -- which dampens the flirtations between Tig and Allyne’s Kate. Remy is a developmentally arrested wisp of a character, and the drama squanders the opportunity to fully portray a New South that contains as many Asian-Americans and sexually aggressive lesbians as it does self-righteous church ladies and Mardi Gras parades. The series is shot with a hospital bleached-ness reminiscent of the fluorescent-lit Getting On that’s perhaps appropriate for the characters’ medical struggles, but also looks drab and stale. There’s no question that One Mississippi is an important milestone in pop cultural existential frankness. It’s art that challenges its audience not to turn away — even if I often wanted to.