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One Mississippi season 2 shows the limits of joke-light comedy

The Tig Notaro series is still charming and whimsical and fun. But it struggles to balance its tone.

One Mississippi
Tig Notaro stars as a different Tig in One Mississippi.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

There’s an idea advanced by some TV critics (including me, often) and/or awards-giving bodies that the quality of a comedy isn’t necessarily tied to the quality of its jokes. Indeed, a putative comedy can often get by on a kind of sly worldview and funny situations more than laugh-a-second jokes.

In some ways, this is unfair. It’s really hard to make people laugh, and a show that can make you laugh, over and over again, is worth treasuring. Comedies that are “too good to be funny” (as a Family Guy joke once had it about Sports Night) often garner what can seem like excess amounts of praise for their small-scale, bittersweet style of comedy, aimed more at producing wry chuckles than anything else.

But there’s definitely value in shows like Transparent and Atlanta and Better Things — shows that are interested in presenting slice-of-life stories that don’t strain to be funny 100 percent of the time but do try as hard as they can to be interesting. Veteran comedy writers would tell you these shows are just half-hour dramas, and maybe they are, but it’s gotten harder and harder to get stories about people just living their lives on TV. I’m grateful these half-hour shows, no matter how you classify them, exist.

I’ve also always argued that they’re comedies, because their central ideals are essentially optimistic, about characters who hold out hope in the face of all evidence to the contrary and are every so often rewarded for that, instead of endlessly being punched in the face. There’s a partly cloudy sunniness to them that reminds me of the film comedies of Woody Allen or Albert Brooks.

But: While I can argue about that until I’m blue in the face, I spent most of One Mississippi’s second season wondering where all the jokes were.

One Mississippi is a stronger show in season two, but also a darker one

Amazon’s Tig Notaro series fits a lot of the qualifications listed above. As a series about a lesbian breast cancer survivor who moves back to her small Mississippi hometown, it’s definitely depicting a point of view not every TV series can boast, and it really is optimistic about the process of healing.

Every character in One Mississippi is dealing with some trauma in their past that they long to heal. Some of these traumas, like the pain of childhood molestation, are very big and serious, but the series also understands deeper, societal trauma, like the legacy of slavery, or smaller traumas, like being a less masculine (though still straight) man in a society that values traditional masculinity above all else. It understands we all have pain, and we all try to bury it in different ways. But it also understands the only way out is through. You have to learn to make peace with your past somehow, and the work of doing that is the core of One Mississippi.

Where season one of the show focused on a question viewers already knew the answer to — will Tig move back home long-term? — because if the answer wasn’t “yes,” then there wouldn’t be a TV show, season two has a stronger story on the whole. In particular, it offers three different romances with three very different arcs, all of which coalesce in the season’s lovely fifth episode, where all three couples end up around the same dinner table.

One Mississippi
Tig and her brother Remy get some bad news.

Tig has fallen for her radio producer, Kate (Stephanie Allyne, Notaro’s real-life wife), who has never been in a relationship with a woman but is clearly curious about embarking on one with Tig. Tig’s brother, Remy (Noah Harpster), begins dating single mother Desiree (Carly Jibson), but finds his ability to sexually perform hindered by a mental block he can’t quite figure out. And Tig’s stepfather, Bill (John Rothman), finds himself falling for Felicia (Sheryl Lee Ralph), a black woman who works in his building, which leads him to slowly realize how differently the two of them have perceived their Southern small-town society.

These three arcs all roughly track with the well-established idea of the romantic comedy, and it’s not as if the show never has laughs. In particular, Desiree, who’s just a little dumb, is given some straight jokes, though the hit-to-miss ratio is lower than I might like.

But One Mississippi more frequently substitutes whimsy for jokes, as when Kate takes Tig’s hand briefly in the premiere, and Tig has a series of escalating visions of the two grasping hands in a variety of situations, including climbing a mountain. It’s Wes Anderson comedy — more notable for tone and bittersweet beauty than comedic repartee.

And that’s cool. I love whimsy, I love Wes Anderson, and I really like the second season of One Mississippi, especially when it delves into the complicated relationship progressives can have with their more conservative, small-town roots. It’s one of the better examples I’ve seen of TV wrestling with how dangerous and how seductive the failure to examine your own prejudices can be, and the season tackles this question from multiple angles, which is welcome.

But dammit, it’s just not very funny, even when it’s intending to be. It’s sweet, and it’s charming, and it’s whimsical, but so much of what it’s aiming for would land harder if the jokes were better. In particular, the finale, which goes to some very dark territory about how legacies of sexual assault can mark the family members of survivors, is hurt by how the darker stuff doesn’t have something meatier on the comedic side to balance itself against.

To use a similar, Southern-set example, Atlanta offers a complex, multi-faceted look at black pain, in many different senses of that idea, but it balances that out with wild, often surreal scenes that play up the weirdness of even the show’s most mundane moments.

There’s nothing wrong with One Mississippi’s approach, and the criticisms I offer largely come down to personal preference. But I watched the first five episodes of season two and loved their new approach to the small-town sitcom, then found the finale was writing a bunch of checks it hadn’t quite earned the comedic currency to cash. It came close, but the balance, ultimately, landed in the red.

One Mississippi is streaming on Amazon.

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