The best of the current wave of TV comedies function like distilleries. They take a mix of carefully chosen raw ingredients and turn them into intoxicating substances that often have one hell of a kick. Just a little can leave you reeling, even as you marvel at the spiky yet harmonious synthesis of flavors.
“One Mississippi” and “Fleabag” deserve to be talked about in the same breath as small-batch spirits because they too are artisanally crafted and almost alarmingly effective. Their cumulative effects may sneak up on you if you’re not paying attention — and even if you are.
“One Mississippi” is loosely based on the somewhat recent experiences of standup comic Tig Notaro, who underwent a hellish year that included a breakup, the death of her mother and a bout with cancer. “Fleabag,” on the other hand, is about the owner of a failing café in London, and its sex-obsessed protagonist is more brittle and arch than the laconic star of “One Mississippi.” Both programs put middle-class white women front and center, but one is straight and the other is gay, and aesthetically, you wouldn’t mistake the laid-back bayou flavor of Notaro’s comedy for the jittery, gray London of “Fleabag.”
That said, both series use economical storytelling, savage honesty and tender wit to tell specific and emotionally engaging stories about grief, memory, and the ways that family ties can feel like anchors — they can provide a stable point of reference, but they can also drag a weary person down.
Aside from the thematic similarities, there are also some structural parallels between the two shows, which premiere one week apart on Amazon Prime. Both do such smart and effective jobs of building up key relationships that the confrontations that arrive near the ends of both six-episode seasons pack a surprising amount of power. Both even have subplots about lost pets, and those minor threads echo the shows’ major themes, which revolve around loss and abandonment, and the anger, sarcasm, and panic that spew out of those kinds of primal wounds. Why can it be harder to have functional connections with family members — the people with whom we have the most history — and why does that shared past sometimes make it harder, not easier, to get to a place of truth?
These are the big questions that both “Fleabag” and “One Mississippi” skillfully toss around without coming to any tidy conclusions. Like everything from “Master of None” to “BoJack Horseman” to “You’re the Worst,” the liveliest new comedies cut challenging, big-picture questions down to manageable size without circumventing the seriousness of life’s core conundrums.“Fleabag” and “One Mississippi” join that growing roster of frisky, heart-piercing comedies, and they provide yet more proof that the half-hour is, without question, TV’s dominant art form at the moment.
To call either of these shows a comedy feels like a bit of a cheat, given that both are unafraid to go for the jugular, dramatically speaking. But both programs are scathingly funny and clock in at under 30 minutes, so that’s what we’re calling them (especially since the word “dramedy” is an insult to the English language). One of the great things about a running time of around 25 minutes is that it forces storytellers to make choices and to focus on small groups of people and a limited number of incidents. That clarity and concision, delivered via incidents that reek of the sloppiness and surreal silliness of real life, can make for a very satisfying kind of storytelling that manages to be both concentrated and a little bit loose around the edges.
It’s worth noting that brevity is not just the soul of wit; it can also make another person’s emotional terrain less taxing to navigate. The TV version of Tig is not overbearing, but at a longer running time, the clashes of different worldviews and grieving styles inside her stepdad’s freakishly tidy home could make for a claustrophobic or overwhelming experience. As “Transparent” has proved, it can be easier to handle someone else’s neuroses and complicated family problems when they are loaded with acerbic asides and come at you in short bursts.
In “One Mississippi,” Notaro plays a music-loving deejay who is known for the stories she tells, and those brief monologues — and almost every other aspect of the show — capture much of what’s most magnetic about her standup comedy . Like a good songwriter, she can paint a vivid picture using very few words, finding both the emotional core of a memory and its intrinsic absurdity with disarming detail and admirable grace. There are one or two slightly jarring notes, like a girlfriend who sometimes feels like a collection of Los Angeles stereotypes, but for the most part, the show does a fantastic job of knitting together Tig’s various realities: as a cancer survivor who has other health problems; and as a daughter grieving the loss of a parent while, at times, unexpectedly enjoying aspects of her trip down memory lane.
“One Mississippi” was created by Notaro and Diablo Cody, and a number of episodes were directed by Nicole Holofcener. Given that array of talent, it’s not all that surprising that this is easily one of the best new shows of the year. Even so, the cumulative power of “One Mississippi” is almost breathtaking, given where it starts. When Tig arrives back home in Bayou Saint Lucille on the Mississippi coast, she takes part of one of the sturdiest scenes in television’s arsenal — a family standing around the hospital bed of a dying relative (in this case, her mom).
As Tig negotiates her memories of her complicated mother (who appears in flashbacks) and her family’s secret-laden history, “One Mississippi” offers a series of consistently wry observations about people who don’t quite know how to connect to each other (Tig is so commitment-phobic that she flinches when her girlfriend sends her a kiss via video chat). A great deal of comedy is wrung from the fact that she constantly deploys bemused sarcasm in order to survive the absurdities of her life, while her stepfather, Bill (John Rothman), is a rigid man whose humorlessness is often Tig’s Kryptonite. Bill’s pantry is so perfectly in order that it’s a little terrifying, and disrupting the cat’s eating schedule is simply not done. As Tig’s brother, Remy (Noah Harpster), observes various minor domestic battles that indicate much deeper reservoirs of anger and sadness, he retreats into wary bonhomie that just barely covers the awkwardness he so obviously feels.
Just because Notaro’s style is dry doesn’t mean there isn’t a great deal of intensity just under the surface, and “One Mississippi” finds the sense of shock and betrayal behind every awful memory, but it also finds the humanity in Bill, who is played with beautiful earnestness by Rothman. A new widower, Bill is just trying to avoid the edge of a psychological precipice in his own fumbling way, and the show is compassionate about every character’s foibles, even those of Tig’s sweet biological father, who is as feckless as Bill is responsible. Each cathartic confrontation near the end of the short but powerful season is meticulously earned, as is the weird sense of optimism that follows Tig around like the boxes of old clothes and mementos she can’t quite get rid of. The absorbing season finale is a fitting culmination of a show that is exceptionally assured in its debut season.
“Fleabag,” meanwhile, has a gimmick: The unnamed lead character frequently addresses the camera, treating each member of the audience as both a voyeur and a trusted confidant. The show uses this device in part to lull the audience into a false sense of security — early on, you might think you’ll be able to guess the contours of the story. You’d be wrong.
In truth, “Fleabag” can be a little predictable at first, given that in its first few installments, it hews closely to the unspoken yet pervasive British belief that there is nothing more gauche and unfunny than a person who is sincere for more than five seconds at a time. That ironic stance can get a little wearing, and the presence of a couple of slightly cartoonish characters seems to indicate that the show is going to pursue a superficial and slightly broad comedic agenda — as if it aspired to be like the nimble and sometimes brutal “Catastrophe,” but focused on a single woman who occasionally talks to the audience while seated on a toilet.
But soon, the wily “Fleabag” begins unpacking the reasons behind the lead character’s overwhelming need for the validation that comes from sex, and it starts to reveal why cracks are forming in her very English wall of repression. Around the middle of the season, the show takes aim at a couple of easy targets in an episode set at a silent retreat full of huffy New Age types, but then it skirts past some of the obvious jokes to conclude with scenes that are both warmly goofy and ever-so-slightly earnest. In its home stretch, it also gains depth and unexpected power, and its first-season finale is not to be missed.
At its core, “Fleabag” is another story of a dead, much-missed mother and two lost siblings who cling to each other without quite knowing how to abstain from the destructive behavior they learned from their elders. It also features a controlling step-parent, played by Olivia Colman; the actress has a fantastic time creating a withering portrait of a grasping and artistic prima donna. Creator and star Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Sian Clifford, the latter of whom plays the lead character’s sister, Claire, do an exceptional job of negotiating the hairpin turns that this slippery show likes to take at great speed. The looks that those two give each other during a dreadful, dutiful lunch with their oblivious dad and steely stepmother vibrate with shared history and an almost euphoric hatred. And in their hands, all of that is very funny.
In the end, “Fleabag” pulls off the neat trick that a number of fine comedies are capable of these days: Long after it’s pulled you in with its irreverence and jokes about sex, and beguiled you with its cutting wit and messily human characters, it reveals that it’s actually a tragedy. It’s a bait and switch — and one worth seeking out at the earliest possible opportunity.
For a podcast discussion of “One Mississippi,” “Fleabag,” “Better Things” and “Insecure,” go here.