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One Mississippi, Amazon’s warm and wise new comedy, is rich with insight on dealing with the past

Tig Notaro stars in a show that takes too long to get where it was always going but has lots of fun along the way.

One Mississippi
Casey Wilson and Tig Notaro play a couple on One Mississippi.
Amazon Studios

For much of the history of television, a series’ pilot functioned as what’s called a "premise pilot."

Rating


3.5


The idea was that it would set up the series’ story, usually by explaining how all of the characters got into the uniquely crazy situation they’re in. (As an example, the Mary Tyler Moore pilot explains how Mary Richards came to live and work in Minneapolis and also explains the end of her engagement.)

Over time, as viewers became more sophisticated, the premise pilot was deemed unnecessary. Sure, they still exist, and some shows would do a "soft" version of it, where a new character was introduced to the already-existing world of the show — think of all the "first day on the job!" pilots out there — but for the most part, audiences no longer needed to have the setup of a family sitcom or cop drama explained to them.

Yet increasingly, streaming services have lost sight of the idea of the "episode," with the demarcation between installments fading as serialization takes over. Thus, more and more often, the TV season itself has become one big, long episode. So why not have a first season of TV function as one big, long pilot?

As an example, consider Amazon’s very good new comedy One Mississippi, which is essentially a three-hour, six-episode premise pilot.

The show takes a well-worn premise but builds on it

One Mississippi
Tig must learn to live with her stepfather Bill all over again.
Amazon Studios

You’ve watched television, right? You know that when somebody leaves the big city to return to a small hometown full of intriguing characters and old relationships they need to set right, they’re going to be staying there for the duration of the series, yes?

I’m torn on how One Mississippi handles this particular situation. On the one hand, it makes sense that the show’s lead character, Tig (played by comedian Tig Notaro, who co-created the series with Diablo Cody and based it heavily on her own life), would be so reticent to leave Los Angeles and move back to her Mississippi hometown in the wake of her mother’s death. The series takes its time with Tig’s evolution, detailing every step of it.

On the other hand, the fact that this is such a tried-and-true TV setup means the entire season seems like it’s simply forestalling the inevitable. It’s rarely a good idea to let the audience get so far ahead of the characters, and I spent a fair amount of One Mississippi just waiting for all of the dominos to fall.

Particularly ill-served by this approach is Tig’s girlfriend, Brooke (Casey Wilson), who exists mostly to provide a reason that Tig might want to return to LA. But she pivots so quickly to someone Tig wants to break up with that she feels less like a character and more like a plot mechanic — someone whose only purpose is to fulfill certain functions of the story.

Much better handled are the scenes in Mississippi, where Tig is forced to deal with Bill (John Rothman), her prickly, demanding stepfather; and Remy (Noah Harpster), the brother she doesn’t know as well as she should. The relationships among these family members are beautifully mapped out at every step of the way, as they come together and fall apart, and the show’s greatest skill is in how it traces all the characters’ relationships to their own past selves.

One Mississippi excels when it focuses on dealing with the dark shadows of the past

One Mississippi
Tig’s trip back to Mississippi allows her to reconnect with memories of her mom.
Amazon Studios

If there’s one thing I love about One Mississippi, it’s that the series perfectly captures how we tend to view relationships with the recently deceased through rose-colored glasses — and then find ourselves remembering, slowly but surely, the things we didn’t like about that person.

Tig’s relationship with her mother wasn’t necessarily great, but for the first half of the season, she views her mother as a sort of prisoner in a loveless marriage. It’s easy to blame her stepdad, who has trouble expressing affection for anything other than his cat, Bonkerz.

Yet as the season enters its second half, Notaro and the show’s other writers gracefully chart how Tig begins to remember all of the ways in which her mother wasn’t perfect, especially once she learns some of the deepest secrets her mother was keeping from her children.

This is particularly true when the show deals with a storyline about Tig’s molestation as a child at the hands of a close family member. At first, the plot point seems dropped in almost at random, with Tig referencing it in passing.

But as the season progresses and One Mississippi’s story grows richer and deeper, its strategy for handling this particular storyline becomes clear. The longer Tig spends at home, the more difficult it is to dismiss the darkest moments of her past in jokey asides. She’s not just here to deal with her mother’s death; she’s here to try to understand why her mother didn’t figure it out sooner that Tig had been abused and endangered.

And the more Tig comes to know about her mother, the more she realizes that she and her mom had very similar experiences, when they were taken advantage of and abused by men with too much power over them. In the season finale, she imagines, ruefully, a moment when she and her mother could tell each other all their secrets, maybe even have a slumber party.

But that’s impossible now. Tig’s mother is dead, even if Tig’s memories of her grow harder and harder to bear.

Season one works both as a pilot for a longer series and a standalone story of its own

One Mississippi
Tig and her brother hang out.
Amazon Studios

Ultimately, the message of One Mississippi is that the past might seem like it’s too much to reckon with, but to exist in the present requires addressing said past directly.

Over and over, the show introduces something serious as an offhanded joke, then gets closer and closer and closer to actually looking at it head-on. Whether it’s Tig’s molestation or her struggle to look at her body after the mastectomy she had due to breast cancer, the series is about how hard it can be to live with both the traumas that we’ve experienced and the people who either did too little to stop them or failed to help us along the way.

But One Mississippi is also about learning to live with past versions of yourself, about reconciling with people you might have written off, and about finding goodness in both places and situations where you might not expect it. In the show’s best moments, it seems at once fleet and funny, but also deeply wise.

The series is not perfect. It can’t escape how foregone its conclusion can seem, and the curious whiteness of its Mississippi small town frequently just seems weird. But it gets off to a promising start all the same.

If season one is a premise pilot for a series about a woman moving back home to try to rebuild a life she thought she’d left behind, I’m on board.

But even if One Mississippi doesn’t return for a second season, season one works beautifully as a muted story about what it means to come home and realize the person you once were, the person you thought you packed up in a box and stored away somewhere, is waiting right there for you to discover all over again.

One Mississippi is streaming on Amazon Prime.

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