We need to talk about Bill.
Played with fine distinction by John Rothman, Bill is the long-standing step-father to Tig (Tig Notaro) and Remy (Noah Harpster), two grown children who are generally struggling to maintain healthy relationships and, more recently, are reeling from the unexpected death of their mother (and Bill’s wife). A humorless man who appears robotic much of the time, Bill focuses on the practicalities of death rather than the emotional consequences.
He worries Tig will sue him over her mother’s belongings if they remain in his home too long. He worries about Tig’s health — as she had a cancer scare not too long ago that resulted in a double mastectomy — but only in practical steps like doctors’ visits and probiotic shakes. He says things like, “No one understands death” when trying to identify with his kids’ emotional turmoil. He’s curt, quiet and clearly on the spectrum.
But there’s far more to Bill’s behavior than serving as an antisocial foil to the emotionally-crippling scenario presented to this family. Yes, his behavior makes him the funniest character on “One Mississippi” — a series perfectly encapsulating, moment-to-moment, its creator’s honest sense of humor. But it’s his slowly-developed backstory that establishes Bill as the lynchpin of a series seemingly based around everyone else.
Co-created by Notaro and Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody (“Juno,” “Young Adult”), “One Mississippi” literally cannot wholly belong to Notaro, but her perspective, voice and humor shines through in every facet. The stand-up comedian, radio storyteller and writer turned a corner in her career when she started discussing her cancer treatments during shows, going so far as to perform a set topless to demystify her scars and embrace her survival. Some of these same topics come up in the new series, but “One Mississippi” is an ode to her mother and family above all else.
In creating Bill, she found an ingenious method to build a fresh dynamic with a fascinating history, nuanced motivations and enough juice to keep the series running long into the future. The above introduction was more of an ode to Notaro, the writer — for identifying and implementing a character who can bring out the best in everyone around him — than a means to say Rothman’s discerning performance stole the spotlight from Notaro’s own impactful turn.
And never is she better than when balancing the real world with what’s going on in her head. One of the simply implemented — and brilliantly evocative — devices incorporated into the series is how to convey memories experienced in day-to-day life. Fresh from taking her mother off life support, Tig is awash with nostalgia — good and bad — while driving around her old hometown and living in her old house. She sees train tracks and thinks back to when she, her brother and her mom would chase each other. “Yeah, that was safe,” Tig says out loud, but we experience the memory’s full range of emotion because we see her younger self, younger brother and living mother play together in real time. There’s no loopy lines conveying a past thought or harsh cut to a past time. We watch as Tig stares out the window, hear her brother mention the memory and then watch it play out in front of her eyes.
It feels incredibly authentic, relatable and direct, but the method also establishes a precedent for Tig interacting with her memories that leads to some bolder scenes down the line. There’s nothing otherworldly about “One Mississippi,” but Tig’s grieving process should feel quite real, even when what we’re watching clearly isn’t.
All of these memories, painful and enriching, give the series a density equivalent to many dramas. Yet “One Mississippi” never sinks too far into the muddy river water thanks to its buoyant bits of comedy. Notaro’s instinctual search for the lighter side when facing the darkness permeates each episode. When Tig’s mother passes, she imagines a jovial send-off as she and her mother leave the hospital. Tig jokes about death, cancer, being molested as a child and more dark subjects without ever feeling tawdry or disrespectful. It’s a way of life more than a coping mechanism, and Notaro expertly establishes her frame of reference from the start.
And it’s Bill who helps cement delicate distinction between Tig’s worldview and, well, the world’s. In lesser hands, Bill could have simply represented the rejection Tig has seen when she pushes back against the fear and humorless gravity surrounding death, cancer and other serious subjects. He does that, but it’s not all he is, nor does Tig represent a mentality we should all be adopting. Together, they must discover how to respect one another; respect the process; respect the choices; respect the love, in whatever form it takes. That journey proves fascinating through “One Mississippi’s” six-episode first season and leads to a better understanding of humanity as a result.
“One Mississippi” Season 1 is now streaming on Amazon.