Saturday, October 1, 2016

Grieving and Laughing: Tig Notaro’s One Mississippi

Given its subject matter, it seems inevitable that Tig Notaro’s new show on Amazon, One Mississippi, would at one point feature a montage scored by a song from Sufjan Stevens’ 2015 masterpiece Carrie & Lowell. Stevens’ album is a beautiful, if oftentimes bleak, reflection on his difficult relationship with his late mother Carrie, as well as his loving and supportive sometime stepfather. Like Stevens’ album, Notaro’s new show depicts a process of grieving a recently deceased mother and coming to grips with the long-term effects of her successes and failures as a parent. However, One Mississippi isn’t always quite as tonally adept in its depiction of this process, and it veers from some profoundly affecting highs to the occasional bizarre, confusing low.

One of the major ways in which Notaro’s made a name for herself is as a standup comic, although no one would envy her the experiences that inform her deadpan and often extremely dark material. Her best-known work is a set from 2012, in which she discussed her experience as a survivor of breast cancer, as well as the double mastectomy that she underwent. Nor was this the only near-death experience she endured at the time: she was also battling a serious bacterial infection that could have killed her. Worst of all, in the midst of these grave threats to her health, Notaro’s mother unexpectedly died. Notaro hardly bothers to fictionalize this dark period of her life, playing a character that’s barely distinguishable from her real-life persona. Such a concatenation of horrible events would seem almost ludicrous in an entirely fictional narrative, and part of my difficulty in assessing One Mississippi stems from the impossibility of separating real-life events from what’s presented onscreen (I often find myself in a similar dilemma when it comes to documentary theatre). The show follows Tig’s return home, beginning with her return to her hometown to witness her mother’s final moments. She proceeds to stay in her hometown (a fictionalized version of Pass Christian, Mississippi, where Notaro grew up) for an extended period of time to sort out her mother’s personal effects. While she’s there, she also attempts to put her relationships with her brother Remy (Noah Harpster) and her stepfather Bill (John Rothman) on a steadier footing.

It’s hard not to be emotionally invested in Tig’s personal struggles, but it’s also unclear how much of this stems from her performance and the show’s treatment of her character and how much comes from the fact that we can read some of the show’s most affecting moments as more or less exact recreations of Notaro’s actual experiences. A scene in which Tig disrobes and finally makes herself look at the twin scars where her breasts used to be is one of the more emotionally stunning moments that I’ve seen on TV this year. This also makes it difficult to get a read on Notaro as an actor; some of the moments when she delivers sustained lines of dialogue come across as a little wooden, but her generally deadpan affect makes the moments of real emotion all the more touching. The show’s treatment of Tig’s mother, Caroline, is also a strong point. Initially presented as a loving and beloved maternal figure, she steadily becomes more complex as Tig begins to learn more about her and to recall some of the uglier aspects of their relationship, such as her obliviousness to her own father’s molestation of Tig when she was younger. There’s a fairly effective recurring device in which Tig keeps encountering her mother around the house as a sort of ghost; when she comes home from the hospital for the last time, she meets Caroline, who asks, “Did you have fun tonight?” “No, not tonight,” Tig responds, “You died.”

However, One Mississippi’s emotional heft is occasionally undercut by some odd tonal variations. Like Louie or Better Things, two other recent shows in which comedians play nakedly autobiographical versions of themselves, One Mississippi mixes in moments of comedy with its more serious concerns. Some of Notaro’s more deadpan humor is effective as black comedy, although as often as not it seems calculated to induce a grim smirk as much as outright laughter. Approximately once an episode, though, Notaro takes leave of the show’s realistic frame to throw in a surreal joke. For instance, when a doctor informs her that the best way of treating her bacterial infection might be a fecal transplant, we briefly cut away to her imagination, in which the doctor is a mad scientist who’s hooked up her rear end to a bizarre, fantastical device. The problem is that this sort of joke is never sustained enough to register – it’s unclear how these lightning-quick flights of imagination fit into Tig’s overall character, and they’re infrequent enough that they never manage to add much stylistic complexity to the show’s fundamentally realistic style. If anything, they feel like effective punchlines to one of Notaro’s stand-up routines that, once committed to film, become simultaneously too literal and too fleeting to have the desired impact.

Tig Notaro and John Rothman in "The Chair." 
There are some other, smaller questions that I had about the show that, taken together, kept me from fully committing to it. For instance, Tig is gradually seduced by the notion of staying in her hometown, but the community of the fictional Bay St. Lucille never quite takes shape in any consistent way. One episode centers around Tig’s attempt to clean up her mother’s favorite chair, which is stained with blood from the injury that ultimately killed her. She then has to decide what to do with it, and ends up deciding to give it to Bugsy (Stacie Greenwell), an African-American woman who, Tig is surprised to learn, was a friend of Caroline’s. That’s an intriguing development on a number of levels, not least given the stereotypical view that most outsiders might have about race relations in a small town in Mississippi, but that’s just about all that we learn about Bugsy, who doesn’t make another appearance on the show. It’s just one example of how the show periodically takes some odd digressions – an episode in which Tig’s biological father shows up with some of his good-for-nothing friends in a well-meaning attempt to find Bill’s lost cat – whose immediate relevance isn’t entirely clear and who never add up to a larger sense of the community in which Caroline lived and died.

On a similar note, the characters in Tig’s immediate family, while often interesting, are sometimes puzzling in ways that don’t seem to be intentional on the part of Notaro and co-creator Diablo Cody (who thankfully keeps her penchant for mercilessly quirky, quippy dialogue in check here). John Rothman’s performance is often deeply affecting - there’s a wonderful moment when Tig flashes back to an incident in which she recalls the look of utter fear on his face while he’s steadying a ladder on which her mother is carelessly standing – but as the character’s written, Bill is so inwardly consumed with grief and worry and so incapable of making a sustained connection to any of the people around him that you’re left wondering how a woman as vivacious as Caroline ended up with and stayed married to him (even accounting for some revelations midway through the season).

At only six episodes, One Mississippi is effectively a lengthy indie dramedy cut into discrete segments (Nicole Holofcener was behind the camera for several). It’s worth asking whether more time and more episodes would have helped to flesh out some of the show’s more confusing digressions, or whether cutting it even further into a feature film might have better focused its undeniable emotional intensity. As it is, One Mississippi is often fascinating and moving, but I’m not quite sure what to make of some of its odder tendencies.

– Michael Lueger teaches theatre classes at Northeastern University and Emerson College. He's written for HowlRound and WBUR's Cognoscentipage. He also tweets about theatre history at@theaterhistory.

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