One of the most difficult things to do, presumably, as a queer person, is to confront inequality in the face of death. Of course, death is the great leveller, but the presence, prospect and contemplation of death also clarifies just how disposable queerness is so widely and generally considered to be. Sometimes I wonder whether all the anxiety around marriage equality is an anxiety over this just this right to die with dignity. Certainly, it’s not surprising that the marriage equality movement has been so concerned with rights around death, from the posthumous taxation case that prompted the repeal of DOMA to the issues around bedside visitation and spousal pensions that have turned certain sections of the Australian Police Force into such an unexpected hotbed of queer activism. Time and again, the death of a wife or husband is presented as somehow more significant than the death of a queer partner, while the death of a single queer person or a polyamorous queer person often seems to be framed as the most disposable death of all by the mainstream media. It’s in these moments that it feels as if the heteronormative epidemiologies of the AIDS crisis have never really left us, which is why I often find it strange when activists refuse to acknowledge any continuity between the death discourses that once surrounded HIV and the death discourses that currently, if more implicitly, subtend the marriage equality movement.
For that reason, there is a peculiarly visceral and melodramatic intensity to films about queer death, queer illness and queer ageing more generally. In some sense, these are always films about queer singledom as well, especially in a world in which marriage and singledom are still more or less understood as the two main frames of being, at least by an older generation that still has considerable sway. On the weekend I’m going to see Xavier Dolan’s It’s Only the End of the World, and while all the reports I have heard have been scathing about Dolan histrionic melodramatics, I feel as if this must be an ideal register for dealing with the prospect of the later stages – or the late stages – of queer existence. Of course, there are other registers as well, and comedian Tig Notato has spent the last couple of years going in the opposite direction, developing a stand-up routine that allows her to tell her story of breast cancer and double mastectomy with a wry, offbeat and slightly depressive tonality that also percolates throughout One Mississippi, her first feature-length series.
As with her stand-up, Tig plays an awry version of herself – this time collaborating with Diablo Cody as screenwriter and Nicole Holofcener as director – who returns to her hometown in Bay St. Lucille in Mississippi after her mother passes away suddenly. Tig herself has only just recovered from breast cancer and a subsequent double mastectomy, with the result that she is initially too dazed to really process what is happening around her in any single or sustained way. To make matters worse, her eccentric brother Remy (Noah Harpster) and emotionally aloof father-in-law Bill (John Rothman) seem to be relying upon her to bring some meaning to the whole situation, which she can only start to interpret by falling back upon the childhood abuse that forced her to leave Mississippi in the first place. As that might suggest, it’s a pretty dark premise, with long stretches of it feeling like we’re witnessing Tig gradually emerging from a depressive stupor to reacquaint herself with the sheer incongruity of the world, and the even greater incongruity of being queer in this world. Yet that also produces a new openness to the comedy and absurdity of things that works brilliantly with Tig’s deadpan, observational style. It also contours her drab, colourless expression with a more optimistic sense of awakening and purpose, as returning to Mississippi becomes synonymous with returning from the depths of her illness.
What ensues is something like a queer regionalism, with the Mississippi Delta forming something of a second protagonist who is continually in dialogue with Tig and her past. Lush and morbid at the same time, every sequence is suffused with a kind of stagnant arborescence in which bright colours are framed and offset by the dull, flat expanses of the bayous building behind them. Like Tig’s illness, it’s a landscape whose contours seem to bring out the inherent precarity of being queer, and the way in which it works its therapeutic magic is one of the loveliest and most understated parts of the series. At the same time, Tig’s relationship with her brother – and, in a more gradual way, with her father-in-law – has such a lived-in, deadpan banality that at times it’s almost like we’re watching a weird variation on the sitcom in which the queer character has become the centre of the story in the later part of their life. Certainly, the sitcom is one of many comic modes that Tig tries out over the course of this first season, which often feels like a test run for the kind of tone and atmosphere that she intends to consolidate and continue in the second.
For me, the strongest comic mode was Tig’s wry, detached commentary, halfway between stand-up comedy and storytelling. As in real life, her job here partly involves radio work, so it’s only a matter of time before she’s doing a stint at the local Bay St. Lucille station, where she forms a wonderful rapport with another local operator. It’s not just the radio sequences that shine, though, since Tig has a great knack for telling stories as she’s actually experiencing them without ever feeling knowing or self-referential or too detached. That ability to articulate the present moment – a sense of calm in the midst of precarity – allows her to wrest small details out of chaos and encourage other people to do the same, with the result that she seems to draw out the storytelling capacities of the townsfolk around her, even or especially when she seems most withdrawn from their sympathy. This drive toward storytelling is even more powerful in that series starts at what appears – or what might once have appeared – to be the end of her story. That’s a common trope in her recent stand-up comedy and radio work as well, although here it seems to take on an even more soulful approach against the backdrop of the Delta, scored to a “deep archive of jams and anecdotes” that slip in and out of her radio program and in and out of the diegesis like haunted memories that have been around so long they’re almost friends.
Along with that will to storytelling there are also moments of slapstick, screwball, high drama and romantic comedy, but by the final episode it feels as if Tig has finally found a way to congeal a narrative format around her quite unique and unclassifiable comic talents. It’s almost a shame, then, that the series is so short – only six episodes, two hours in total – but that also ensures that Tig’s time in Mississippi never loses its precious, incidental, accidental atmosphere. Lately, there’s been a movement away from the monolithic “cinematic” experiences of quality television and a return to a more rapid-fire form of seriality. That’s very much on display here, with a series whose fugitive queerness almost demands to be consumed in a single watching, but never feels like a sustained movie or traditional cinematic experience either. In its own quiet way, then, I found One Mississippi one of the most formally innovative and affectively galvanising series of 2016, and I wouldn’t be surprised if its critical acclaim skyrockets even further with the second season, due out later this year.