Following on the 2015 media blitz of comedian Tig Notaro's notoriously beloved audio-only set, her followup special "Boyish Girl Interrupted" and the documentary "Tig," Amazon released the pilot last November for her autobiographical half-hour, "One Mississippi."
The series, which debuted in full on September 9, delivers. But, perhaps inevitably, the comedown is pretty stark and the individual episodes highly variable in merit. After all that buildup, the pressure riding on those six total episodes was intense -- Tig's low-key and devastating observations are more than welcome, but a full layout of characters, scenes and arcs could fall anywhere from a too-intense bummer onslaught to a watered-down, glib retelling.
Not to mention, with so many big names behind the scenes -- Kate Robin, Diablo Cody and Louis CK as executive producers, episodes directed by Nicole Holofcener and Shira Piven -- and the unequivocal goodwill Tig has always generated around her act, the bar was already pretty high.
While not usually a proponent of binge releases, I get how they're a response to timeshifting and to what we, as consumers, say we want -- but it feels like more often than not, it kills the news cycle and converts buzz back into word-of-mouth, trickling out on a slow burn, which doesn't do fandom unity any favors. But more than that, it seems dumb because of how our brains work.
The reason serials work, going back to Dickens and all the way up through monthly comic books and your weekly hit of "Buffy," is because the brain needs time to shuffle all the information and connections it's making into long-term memory: To compare this week's story to the accumulated story that came before.
I can tell you exactly what Serena van der Woodsen was wearing and what song was playing when she and Blair got into their fight at the Yale recruiter's soiree five years ago... but every season of "Orange Is the New Black" reduces itself within a few days of watching to an unsettling, unemotional blur. We even apply a sort of discipline, I've noticed -- or at least time management, if you are an actual grownup -- parceling out episodes over time and ensuring that any conversation about a show is also, sometimes mainly, about spoilers.
But there are a few streaming shows that have benefited from the arrangement, feeling more like fairly long movies than week-over-week episodic dramas, and "One Mississippi" is much stronger for the singularity of its experience: Detailing a very short, very turbulent period in Tig's life means only so much emotional transformation can take place -- and oh, it does -- while staying within one particular tone and circumstance.
Just as "Transparent's" intuitive choices work better in unbroken context, or the last season of "Arrested Development" tried to have it both ways, "One Mississippi" asks you to stay with it, mindfully and respectfully, as the leads cope with the aftermath of a death that seems to be all that kept them in one another's orbit.
This also leads to one of the most exciting and interesting formal decisions the show builds itself around: The lead trio throughout consists of Tig, her charming brother Remy ("Transparent" writer/actor Noah Harpster), a fading former jock, and their utilitarian stepfather-from-childhood Bill (understated stage actor John Rothman). Other memorable characters cycle in and out of the story, but the narrative drive, such as it is, stays on these three: One of the oddest and smallest ensembles in recent history, beating out even Zach Galafiniakas' "Baskets."
(Not for nothing, this is also a great out-clause for the presence of men in a show based entirely around the emotional landscapes of a single queer woman: Neither of the dudes in her vicinity has the wherewithal or situational awareness to try and fix anything, so Tig never has to stake out the emotional ground we're so used to claiming in that circumstance. It's canny, and as comforting in its way as watching Krysten Ritter's Jessica Jones walk around at night unbothered.)
Moving on from last year's pilot, in which Tig left behind a smothering new-age girlfriend (Casey Wilson, wonderful and abrasive as always) in LA to process her mother's death in a small town at the Louisiana border, we find all three Flanagans flailing. For Tig, it is a matter of fitting herself into the strange routines and symbiosis of Remy and Bill, but without mother Caroline (the versatile Beth Burvant, nurturing and hypnotic by turns) to bind them together, the men in Tig's life are working toward the same end.
The series becomes an exercise in watching the falling pieces settle, as Tig reacquaints herself with her former life and fractured family, weathering visits from ghosts and from traumas long-submerged. A sort of monotony does begin to set in, after the fifth or sixth apocalyptic revelation, as Tig (or the viewer, or other members of the family) unearths some new historical horror about her mother's life, or her own. But in a story originally built on a year of real-life waves of misfortune just this powerful, and Tig's uniquely deadpan-yet-open responses, perhaps that should have been expected.
Luckily, in the midst of all this pain and strife, it's not just Tig's pragmatic, dark sense of humor that keeps the room lit: There are also just enough instances of real joy, and connection, sudden compassionate twists and surprises, and openly affectionate guest stars to keep things afloat. (A single text message in the final episode, from the always-delightful Stephanie Allynne as Kate, becomes a tear-jerking moment of grace, thanks to the layers of meaning hidden in its simplicity and exuberance.)
In the age of "Casual," "Bojack Horseman," "Transparent" and "You're the Worst," the depression comedy is perhaps de mode, something we'll all look back on and sigh about in a decade or so, when we've cheered up a little. But for now, only Tig Notaro should be allowed to take us down quite this far -- because only Tig Notaro can be trusted to get us back out again, into the light.