One Mississippi is a semi-autobiographical sitcom that debuted on Amazon in 2016, based on and starring comedian Tig Notaro, who catapulted to fame when Louis CK commercially released an impromptu stand-up set she performed just after receiving a breast cancer diagnosis. Notaro plays a talk radio host called Tig Bavaro, who similarly develops breast cancer and loses her mother within a few months. While in her hometown of Bay St. Lucille, Mississippi following her mother’s funeral, Tig records her radio show with local producer Kate, with whom she develops a mutual attraction, even though Kate is ostensibly straight. (Kate is played by Notaro’s real wife Stephanie Allynne. They met while shooting a movie and Allynne did not date women before Notaro.) Tig gets a stomach infection that nearly kills her and requires a faecal transplant to treat. She has a brother with a French first name (Renaud/Remy) and a very reserved stepfather she has trouble connecting with. All of this is lifted from Tig Notaro’s life, albeit with names changed, events moved around in time a little and more dramatic character arcs.
But, so far as Notaro has said, the central dramatic fact of One Mississippi is fiction: Tig Bavaro was sexually abused by her grandfather as a child. It’s not the only thing the show is about, by any means, but it’s the axle the central story revolves around, the source of the core dramatic conflicts in the Bavaro family. Tig’s grief and illness are just a starting point – the narrative arc of the show’s two seasons is about sexual abuse and rape culture more generally, and each season ends with Tig taking a step towards processing her feelings about it. One Mississippi received widespread critical acclaim, and rightly so, with much of the praise, especially for season two, directed towards its portrayal of sexual violence and how society enables it.
It’s a very dry, very funny show, even with its often-dark subject matter, but it’s not a black comedy. Tig sometimes makes blackly comic jokes, and there are a couple of Scrubs-esque imagination spots that go very dark, but the tone of the show is mostly pretty relaxed and light, even if there’s narrative tension building up under the surface at all times. When it swings into the dramatic, you feel the shift, you know it’s accelerating, but its resting speed is a nice, gentle hum. I’ve rewatched One Mississippi from start to finish several times and I just enjoy it more and more. It’s somehow both a fun, easy watch and a show that makes me cry several times per season.
One Mississippi was cancelled after its second season in galling circumstances.
The second season debuted in September 2017, just weeks before Harvey Weinstein was outed as a sexual predator by The New York Times and The New Yorker. The back half featured a plot in which a radio producer at a company that had bought Tig and Kate’s radio show masturbated under his desk during a meeting with Kate, an obvious reference to longstanding rumours Louis CK had repeatedly masturbated in front of non-consenting women in the workplace. Louis CK, as well as releasing the cancer set, was credited as an executive producer on One Mississippi, though Notaro insisted he’d had no involvement in the show while calling on him to address the growing allegations against him. CK played dumb at the time, but two months after the second season, following the publication of multiple specific allegations against him in The New York Times, he would admit to his crimes.
Amazon Studios head Roy Price resigned in October 2017 after The Hollywood Reporter published allegations of sexual harassment and evidence it had been covered up by Amazon. Just days later, the studio’s head of television, Joe Lewis, left in what remain murky circumstances, but sure looks like Jeff Bezos using the opportunity of Price’s resignation to push Lewis out of the company because he kept ordering acclaimed, artsy TV shows instead of getting Bezos his most coveted prize: “the next Game of Thrones”. Lewis was the executive who greenlit One Mississippi and it was among the several shows axed by Amazon after Lewis’s departure.
So, just to recap, Jeff Bezos used the resignation of Roy Price, whose sexual harassment of women Bezos himself had helped cover up, to get rid of Joe Lewis so he could cancel low-performing shows for his pivot to his stupid Lord of the Rings show, and one of those shows was One Mississippi, a TV show in no small part about workplace sexual harassment in the entertainment industry, which had used its second season to call out Louis CK, one of its own credited producers, for workplace sexual harassment. You know, in case you were short of reasons to hate Jeff Bezos.
Recently, while rummaging through second-hand TV boxsets in a pawnshop, I picked one at random because it had an interesting-looking cover and put it back almost immediately as a familiar series of phrases rose from the blurb to taunt me: troubled detective, small town, shocking murder and dark secrets. You know the genre. You see it everywhere, in its purest forms and strangest variations. Sometimes, it’s a journalist or another private citizen investigating, not a cop. Sometimes it’s a neighbourhood in a city, not a small town. Sometimes, it’s a disappearance rather than a murder, at least at first. Sometimes, it’s played completely straight, in the darkest and most haunting of tones, but it can also be done as black comedy or melodrama, with elements of fantasy or sci-fi even. It’s not that I have something against this setup inherently. I think Twin Peaks is the best TV show ever made, I adored Sky Atlantic’s disarmingly weird Fortitude and Elisabeth Moss’s lead role in Top of the Lake is – gun to my head – the best of her many, many fantastic performances. Search Party, Fargo, Rectify, Greenleaf, Sharp Objects, even Big Little Lies to a certain extent: I love this kind of story when it’s done well.
But when I’m perusing boxsets or reading page after page of information on all the upcoming shows I have to at least momentarily consider watching in the next television season, let alone the decades of shows past, I see these phrases over and over to describe shows that seem, honestly, completely interchangeable. Grim British faces staring out grimly from an off-black DVD case, a place name or a surname for a title, and somehow Suranne Jones is in every single one. They might have actors I like in the lead or directors I like behind the camera, but my eyes glaze over all the same. I used to think it was just the glut, the same abundance that prevents most police procedurals and medical dramas from lodging in my brain. But it’s deeper than that. They don’t just fail to register with me, they kind of irritate me. I think, as time goes by, small towns with dark secrets just don’t seem strange, unique or compelling enough to be a hook on their own. I feel like I know too much.
Horrible things have been happening to me and to people I know all my life. I’m used to those things happening and I’m used to authority figures doing nothing about them, out of impotence, ignorance or indifference. I knew lots of people in my school who had eating disorders, who self-harmed, who were beaten at home. I know people who were sexually abused by family members, including their parents, people who were brought up in religious communities that were at the very least cult-adjacent, people who were kidnapped, and people who ran away from home and never came back. I know people who’ve attempted suicide and people who succeeded. I know people who are addicted to heroin. I know people who’ve been to prison. I know people who’ve been fired for not sleeping with their boss, chokeslammed by their boyfriend, stalked by an ex. And I’ve known not just the victims, but the perpetrators of crimes. I know people who’ve sexually assaulted children and beaten women. I don’t know these people because I’ve lived an extraordinary life or moved in extraordinary circles. The world is just an unpleasant place where awful things happen to people who don’t deserve it, especially young people, all the time, mostly due to the inaction or involvement of the very sources of authority that claim to watch over us.
It’s almost laughable to me that any TV show, let alone a whole genre, would base its appeal on promising to uncover the dark secrets of small towns, because the kinds of things these shows are generally about – child abuse, drug addiction, mental illness – don’t seem like dark secrets to me. I appreciate that television doesn’t exist for me and there are people for whom this darkness must be shocking, people who could possibly benefit from having their narrow frame of reference expanded. But, for me, none of this is novel, let alone tantalising. The shows in this genre I like tend not to buy into it all so quickly: they push the premise into really weird places (Fortitude), dissect how these horrible things are enabled, if not encouraged, by the community (Greenleaf) and generally just fuck around with the genre (Sharp Objects). They’re often explicitly critical of the idea that small towns have dark secrets, as opposed to things that people know and choose to ignore.
One Mississippi should be understood as part of this lineage. Tig travels back to Bay St. Lucille for her mother’s funeral and secrets are uncovered and exposed. Tig’s brother and stepfather know about the abuse she received, but it’s otherwise a family secret when the series starts, and the portrayal of Bay St. Lucille is in large part an examination of the social conditions that make such abuse possible, particularly the very Southern brand of “propriety” that left Tig suffering in silence for so long. It’s not that her parents knew or suspected her grandfather was abusing her, it’s that they treated the emotional outbursts prompted by her abuse as disruption and disrespect, as a teenager acting out and being rude just to be spiteful. It’s that old notion that “children should be seen, not heard”, the endemic incuriousity about young people’s inner lives that persists to this day. Tig’s misbehaviour was only regarded as a source of embarrassment, not a cause for concern. Her parents were too blinded by propriety to see their daughter was hurting, let alone who was hurting her, and even the revelation of the abuse failed to challenge their notions of what was “appropriate”. The subject was so taboo afterwards, the house so shrouded in silence, that Tig ended up believing for most of her life that they did suspect and just did nothing, and only learned otherwise in her forties, at the end of the show’s first season. Her abuse became just another embarrassment to never be discussed, and it didn’t matter that it was her parents’ embarrassment rather than hers, because she had to be silent all the same.
The facts of the case, such as it is, are confined to Tig’s family, but the show consistently links them with the wider social fabric of Bay St. Lucille. Tig’s mother was adored in the community, while Tig is treated mostly as an object of bemusement, spoken over, not spoken to, until she says something inappropriate. She’s always poking the bear in this regard, a kind of one-woman crusade against the culture of propriety that mostly takes the form of saying obviously true things, that are nonetheless deemed “inappropriate”, in a blunt or flippant way. In the second episode, Tig points to herself in a childhood photo and says “Look! You’re getting molested!”, to the dismay of her brother, who was present for much of the abuse. “What? I was,” she says. “At least let me joke about it.”
But it’s not just a joke, it’s a challenge to be open and talk about it, not just to her brother, but to the wider community. In the first season finale, Tig visits her mother’s grave and imagines having a sleepover with her and the other dead women in the graveyard, all of whom cheerfully admit to being sexually assaulted. Her stepfather comes in, dressed in pyjamas and tells them all to quiet down. The women protest – “We want to talk!”, “Yeah, why can’t we talk?” – and call him a party pooper. In the second season finale, Tig dedicates an episode of her radio show – where she usually tells colourful stories from her life – to a public recounting of her abuse. The ladies at her mother’s social club are tuned in and the shroud of silence is finally broken, but the work is just begun.
One Mississippi ended its second season in a fascinating place, and I was so excited to see where it would go. Tig’s stepfather was finally beginning the introspection necessary to process the fact his father was a sexual predator. Her brother had confronted his own trauma and survivor’s guilt from witnessing Tig’s abuse. Kate and Tig were standing up against harassment in their workplace and cracking the cocoon of silence around sexual assault in Bay St. Lucille and beyond. It somehow gave an optimistic gloss on small towns with dark secrets, even as it challenged the idea that child sexual abuse is something that happens in distant places unlike our own. One Mississippi always treated it as something that should appal us, but never surprise us. We know it happens – is happening – and that it thrives where silence reigns.
Small towns don’t have dark secrets. Just things we choose not to see, or hear, or speak.