In One Mississippi, comedian Tig Notaro and series co-creator Diablo Cody tell a largely fictionalized version of Notaro’s recent life. If you’ve listened to the famous Largo set, which launched Notaro to comedy mega-stardom or watched the Netflix documentaryTig, it’s a story you already know: Over the course of one terrible year, she went through a divorce, contracted C. diff, lost her mother on her birthday to an accidental fall, and was diagnosed with breast cancer. But as this impressive pilot proves, sometimes fiction gets you closer to the truth than a documentary can.
In the world of One Mississippi, Tig is a Los Angeles radio host/comedian/storyteller. When we first meet her, she’s telling the story of a restaurant for stuffed animals that she “opened” as a child, and although her father later tried to throw those stuffed animals away, her mother saved them all in a trunk. Tig’s mother, Caroline, will soon be taken off of life support, so she travels from L.A. to her home state of Mississippi to say good-bye. Once she lands, she’s picked up at the airport by her brother, Remy (Noah Harpster), who is remarkably insensitive about both her cancer and her C. diff. “Tig, what the hell?” he says. “Oh, my God, you look like shit.”
Tig and Remy drive straight to the hospital, where she finds herself unable to fully take in what’s happening, even as her stepfather, Bill (John Rothman), acts uncomfortably matter-of-fact about the situation. (After Caroline is taken off of life support, his biggest concern is getting home in time to feed Bonkers the cat: “She takes a precise portion.”) Remy and Bill leave Tig alone with her dying mother, whose wheezing gasps frighten Tig enough that she calls a nurse. She is scared to leave the room, though, for fear that her mother will take her last breath while she’s not there. Caroline continues to wheeze as Tig flashes back to fond childhood memories, and when she finally passes, Tig is sleeping by her side. After a fantasy sequence in which Tig wheels her mother’s body past happy, waving hospital staff, she cabs back to the family homestead, where she imagines a younger Caroline inside, waiting for her.
That morning, Tig gets a phone call from her girlfriend, Brooke (Casey Wilson), who has flown to New Orleans to be there for emotional support. Tig takes Caroline’s fancy new car to the airport to pick up Brooke, and it’s clear she’s not thrilled about this sudden, unexpected intrusion. Meanwhile, Bill is eager to get rid of all of Caroline’s old things — including Tig and Remy. “Technically,” he says, “we have no legal connection now that your mother is gone.” Tig and Remy are now the owners of Caroline’s old possessions, a fact Bill delivers with a troubling lack of sentimentality. (Or, at least, it’s troubling to Tig and Remy.) Later, as Tig contemplates whether or not to listen to her mother’s last voice-mail, Brooke wonders where her boobs wound up post-mastectomy. Tig still hasn’t let Brooke see her new chest — in fact, she has barely examined the scars herself. The things we do and don’t examine (and when and why we choose to examine them) will become a big theme for One Mississippi.
Lying in bed, Tig reflects on the fact that from now on, there will be no more days with her mother in them. “Tomorrow’s actually a very small day because my mother’s not in it,” she says. “Every day from now on will be smaller. The town’s smaller. I’m smaller.”
On the way to the funeral, Remy fondly recalls picking strawberries with their mother. Bill reminds Tig that the last thing she ever said to Caroline was probably something that, at the time, seemed unimportant. Brooke tries to extrapolate larger meaning from that, much to Tig’s chagrin.
While giving her mother’s eulogy, Tig finally cries. It’s revealed that the voice-mail she hasn’t listened to was recorded on her birthday — the day her mother had her fatal fall. After a brief introduction to Tig’s biological father, Mick, she offers to stay at Bill’s house for a while to sort through Caroline’s things. She feels like she needs to stay near her family. Bill tells her to stay as long as she needs.
Out on the balcony, Tig finally listens to the voice-mail; it’s the last time she’ll hear her mother saying something new. Though we don’t hear the message itself, we see Tig’s face as she listens and imagines an old birthday party in her family’s backyard. It’s a gentle memory of a less small day, a day when her mother actually could be there.
I’ll be honest: One Mississippi is a tough show to recap. The stories do not happen event by event, but rather, moment by moment. You’d think Caroline’s final breath would be the centerpiece of the episode, but similar consideration is given to the CDs that she kept in her car, and the way Bill carefully straightens a pen near the funeral guest book. Death creates significance out of everything, and One Mississippi allows the audience to decide what they’ll take as meaningful. A box of beignets? A voice-mail? Feeding the cat? The way the characters treat each small action and object, no matter how small or how world-bendingly big, feels like a challenge to the audience. A person died. People die all the time. Is it really any more significant than any other human event? To an alien — or to the universe, or to God, or to whatever coolly indifferent eye watches us scramble to keep this world together — it must all look equally banal, or equally extraordinary.
Pilots are tough, and there’s a lot of information to cut through in this one. If you weren’t already familiar with the details of Tig Notaro’s past few years, it might even feel like a tragedy pile on. “Really? Breast cancer and an intestinal disease and a troubled relationship and her mother dies on her birthday? And this is supposed to be a comedy?” If Tig excels at anything, though, it’s mining laughs from the bleakest places. My favorite moment of the episode comes after Brooke suggests that Tig and family try talking to a “death doula.” Her response is hilariously dry: “Bill, how does that grab ya?”
Let’s be clear, though: Having cancer and C. diff, losing her mother, going through a divorce; these things did not make Tig Notaro funny. She has long been one of comedy’s best-kept secrets, the epitome of a “comedian’s comedian,” that designation reserved for people so talented and genuine they force the rest of us to drop our jaded, jealous, guarded ways. Notaro’s stand-up feels like being pulled aside by your coolest, quietest friend and hearing a series of inimitably cheeky anecdotes. It’s similarly hard to explain quite what One Mississippi is about, or what I suspect it will become. It will definitely play for some, and others won’t make it through the first 15 minutes. For me, it felt like wading through grief right alongside Tig and family, counting the seconds, sometimes joyous and sometimes hard to sit through, as their world changed: one Mississippi, two Mississippi …