Thursday, September 8, 2016

TV REVIEW: Amazon's 'One Mississippi'

Amazon will drop the first season of its new half-hour original series One Mississippi on Friday, September 9. The new series stars Tig Notaro, Noah Harpster and John Rothman.

Read on for my thoughts on the semi-autobiographical series after watching its entire six-episode season.

Tig Notaro has had a lot of success over the years with her stand-up career, her comedy specials and her poignant Netflix documentary. If you are a fan of her work, you will immediately recognize the tone, emotions and comedic sensibilities of her new scripted show, One Mississippi. It's the latest in a long string of new shows that challenge the norm of a show being under thirty minutes long being classified as a comedy. There are certainly some outrageously funny moments throughout this six-episode season. But there's a depth of emotion to the storytelling as well. One that makes classification hard when such a thing is important for awards recognition. This is an impressive first season that knows exactly what it wants to be - complications and all.

The story opens with Tig needing to return to her hometown in Mississippi to pull her mother, Caroline, off of life support. She is still dealing with a rough recovery from a mastectomy to treat breast cancer. She needs to be the responsible one for the family as they go through this difficult time. She ultimately decides to stay in this quaint Southern town for a little while in order to properly deal with the emotions that come from this massive loss. Everyone in the family deals with the death of Caroline differently. Tig's family includes her brother Remy (Noah Harpster), a high school teacher and former jock who peaked a long time ago, and her stepfather Bill (John Rothman), a strange man who has an obsessive need to maintain order in his life at all times. This is a story of how a family processes emotions after the death of a loved one. But the season evolves into so much more than that as it showcases this family needing to come together and address past traumas in order to move forward in healthier ways.

This show is such an insightful examination of what it mean to be happy and healthy. It questions what emotions can be felt during any given situation. Everyone in this world responds to tragedy differently. The early episodes highlight these differences. But there is also a keen understanding of how these three people relate to each other because of their shared pasts and experiences. It says that it's completely okay to use death as a way to search for deeper meaning and answers in the world. It's also equally fine to try to control everything and bring even more order into one's existence. It's also understandable to just go about living like nothing ever happened. These are the responses this family goes through. They are all respectful of the process. They cannot relate to how each other see the world. But they do accept that they are on this journey together. This family provides the only other people in the world who can somewhat understand what it is they are feeling.

The episodes don't follow the familial patterns or trappings of a comedy either - or a half hour drama with comedic elements. It prides itself on painting a realistic picture of what it means to be a Southern family in 2016. Yes, the accents can be thick at times. The moods and opinions of the town can be off-putting. But it all fulfills this world in some amazingly gratifying ways. Tig takes comfort from a radio show she hosts. She curates an hour of content that includes captivating stories she wants to tell and songs that thematically match what she's saying. She prides herself on taking her listeners on a journey. It may not always be funny or profound. In fact, a couple of the best moments of the season come when she's just goofing around with her sound engineer, Kate. This is an outlet for her. But more importantly, it provides Notaro with some great material to work with. She's not always the best actress. However, she's a very mesmerizing storytelling. This entire series is so incredibly personal to her. That comes across in every moment these characters spend with the audience. It's a journey that gets more rewarding the deeper into this world the audience goes. But when Notaro just sits down behind a microphone and talks, it's truly magical.

The intersection of past and present is really captivating as well. Each episode uses minor flashbacks to show off a new layer of the past this family has shared together. The show also uses some fantasy elements to truly highlight the emotions Tig is feeling or the world she would rather be living in - or that she fears she's living in. The reality isn't as magical as what she dreams of though. The systems of human existence have become so commonplace and boring. It takes something big to happen to pull strong emotions and feelings out of people. A death is one example of that. It's not the only example that One Mississippi pulls out during its run though. In fact, there are numerous revelations about this family that only further add to their depth and complexity as the season goes along. It's a truly enriching experience. Six episodes is the perfect length for this season - though I would have gladly taken however many Notaro and the writers wanted to do.

And yet, the most inspiring thing that the show does is giving John Rothman such a phenomenal role to play. Bill can come across as a weird and alienating character in the early going. But there is so much dimension and nuance in the performance. The specificity of the writing makes the audience feel the agonizing pain of him wanting to communicate with his family and not knowing how. It deserves to be one of the breakout roles of the fall. It's truly magnificent to watch. Plus, he only gets better as the season goes along. The more the audience learns about this family, the more it can be seen just how good Rothman is in bringing this pained and flawed character to life. Notaro and Harpster are strong as well but Rothman takes the acting on this show to a whole new level. It alone is enough to highly recommend One Mississippi to anyone out there. He is just phenomenal and is supported by a show that really knows what it's doing. It's just masterful to watch.