The question of what truly makes a television comedy a comedy is one that can never be answered. We’ve tried, twisting the regulations at the Emmys or adhering to the general rule that half-hour episodes make a comedy while hourlong episodes signal a drama. It’s the streaming services that seem most likely to stump us: Orange Is the New Black and Transparent often elegantly blur the line between the two genres, seamlessly skipping from one to another from scene to scene. Amazon’s One Mississippi is perhaps the newest, best example.
Loosely based on comedian Tig Notaro’s life, One Mississippi will surely get compared the most to FX’s Louie — which is perfectly fitting, considering that Louis C.K. is one of its executive producers (along with Notaro, Diablo Cody, and a few others). It’s a dark comedy; a bleak comedy; a comedy about declining health and death and feeling out of place and having your family almost literally dissolve. It’s funny, especially in a surrealistic way, but it’s not exactly guaranteed to make you laugh out loud.
The pilot episode, which will be available for free viewing tomorrow (and Amazon will announce whether or not it gets a full season, depending on its overall reception, at some point in the future), revolves largely around the death of Tig’s mother. As this is going on, Tig is also recovering from multiple health scares of her own, including breast cancer (at one point Tig and her girlfriend, played by Casey Wilson, discuss what the hospital will do with her breasts after a mastectomy). It’s a double whammy of tragedy, all played out in comedy that’s elevated by the talent — acting and writing — of Tig Notaro. She’s engaging throughout, quietly brilliant and low-key comical as she navigates reentering the town in which she grew up.
The pilot, which begins with Tig telling a short story about her childhood (presumably these little stories will open every episode, sort of like the way Louie sometimes opens with a brief comedy set), feels more like a vignette than a full episode. It does tell an entire story, but it has a loose flow and an almost indie-movie feel to it. It also gets surreal: one of the funniest moments is a dreamlike sequence in which Tig wonders, out loud, what to do with her dead mother’s body as a nurse laughs hysterically at her confusion.
One Mississippi is a character-driven narrative anchored by Tig, as people orbit around her: her friends, her girlfriend, her stepfather who insists that they are no longer related legally, now that the person who tied them together is dead. It’s hard to do justice to the entire half-hour without spoiling some of the good bits, but it’s a brilliant feat — we expect nothing less from Notaro — and could definitely go on to join the ranks of Transparent if it gets picked up.