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Review: ‘Better Things’ & ‘One Mississippi’ show power of autobiographical comedy

Senior Television Writer
09.07.16 5 Comments

FX/Amazon

Comedy doesn't have to be autobiographical, but it can help a lot. Whether in sitcom plots or stand-up routines, specificity makes everything better, and it's hard to get more specific than drawing details the writers know by heart because they've lived them. Many of TV's greatest comedies were heavily based on the experiences of their creators and/or stars, from The Dick Van Dyke Show – where Carl Reiner would famously begin each Monday by asking his writers to recount what they did with their spouses and kids over the weekend – to Roseanne, Seinfeld (and, thus, Curb Your Enthusiasm), Everybody Loves Raymond, and recent shows like black-ish.

Peak TV also seems to have brought with it Peak Autobiographical Dramedy, with comedians playing a version of themselves that's thinly-disguised at best, having adventures that feel therapeutic as much as comic. Even with Louie – the creative high point, to date, of this particular wave – Maron and Jim Gaffigan recently ending (Louie could return one day, though it doesn't sound likely at the moment), we still have Master of None (where Aziz Ansari's real parents even play his character's parents), Transparent (inspired by the coming-out of its creator's own trans parent, even if it's extended well beyond that), and others, plus this week's premiere of two shows built around Louis C.K. proteges: FX's Better Things with C.K.'s frequent Louie scene partner (and occasional co-writer) Pamela Adlon, and Amazon's One Mississippi with stand-up comic Tig Notaro.

(Better Things debuts Thursday night at 10, while Amazon releases the 6-episode first season of One Mississippi on Friday. I've seen the first 5 Better Things and all of One Mississippi.)

C.K. serves as executive producer on both, though he was much more involved with Better Things, directing the pilot and writing or co-writing 9 of the first season's 10 episodes, where Notaro co-wrote the One Mississippi pilot with Diablo Cody, and the series leans heavily on the visual and tonal chops of director Nicole Holofcener (Enough Said). But even though both shows have DNA in common with Louie – episodes that at times are more a collection of vignettes than a straightforward narrative, a comfort with occasional dream or fantasy sequences, and a lack of interest in doing jokes for their own sake if a purely serious scene is more interesting – they're so clearly filtered through the experiences and worldviews of their respective stars that they never feel like imitators, when they are instead their own rich and very human things.

Both draw heavy dollops of inspiration from their stars' lives and careers. In Better Things, Adlon, a single mom to three teenage girls who's been acting since she was a kid and does lots of voiceover work, plays Sam Fox, a single mom to three teenage girls who's been acting since she was a kid and does lots of voiceover work. (Adlon and Sam each live across the street from their mother.) One Mississippi, meanwhile, recasts Notaro as a public radio show host going through the same real-life tragic trifecta – a double mastectomy due to breast cancer, a debilitating case of the gastrointestinal disease C. Diff, and the unexpected death of her mother – that fueled the stand-up sets that brought her more success and fame than she'd ever had before(*).

(*) Though the fictionalized Tig also tells stories from her life as part of her job, the professional shift seems a way for the show to not only avoid becoming another inside-showbiz series (which Better Things is at times), but to sidestep the bitter irony of disease and death becoming a career boost. 

One Mississippi is more consistently of a piece, not only following the basic story of Tig, in the wake of her mother Caroline (Rya Kihlstedt) dying from fluke injuries sustained in a fall, returning to her family home in Mississippi to help stepfather Bill (John Rothman) and brother Remy (Noah Harpster), but in how Notaro's dry, morbid sense of humor pervades the whole show. Tig seems to take everything in stride, finding ways to crack jokes about everything from Bill's extreme emotional repression(*) to her own molestation as a teenager. Even across its brief 6-episode span, the season takes its time building to moments, like an anxious Tig confronting her mastectomy scars, or a confrontation between Bill and the kids' absentee biological father, and creates an instant sense of place even as Tig is given to fits of whimsy and longing where she imagines Caroline alive, well, and commenting on everything that's been happening to the family without her. As with Notaro's deadpan affect, the show seems to be holding itself in reserve and refusing to engage, yet the impact – on both the serious and silly sides – ultimately lands just as sharply as one of the punchlines from Notaro's act. It's all easygoing until it's anything but.

(*) John Rothman is a quintessential Hey, It's That Guy!, popping up in everything and being reliable, but rarely getting a big and/or ongoing role. He is simply wonderful here, finding the sweet spot where Tig can't see just how deeply Bill cares about her and Remy, and about Caroline's death, but we can. Like Louie Anderson on Baskets (minus the cross-dressing part), it's an incredibly detailed, largely dramatic performance anchoring a show toggling back and forth between comedy and tragedy.

Better Things (whose title always makes me think of Stranger Things now) is more sprawling in its Louie-ish interest in trying on lots of different roles and styles, in the same way that Sam has to, at different times of her day at work and home, be a plumber, a personal secretary, a cartoon animal, a cop, and a mom. It's that last, real, role that she ultimately places most of her interest in – the show uses John Lennon's “Mother” as its theme song, and the opening credits include a brief homage to the Abbey Road album cover – always struggling to find ways to protect, relate to, and maintain the peace between girls at three different ages: high schooler Max (Mikey Madison), early adolescent Frankie (Hannah Alligood) and the much younger Duke (Olivia Edward). The show has a keen, charming grasp of the way parent-child relationships can sometimes fluctuate between screaming and hugging with no transition in between, and some of the most effective Better Things moments are brief cutaways to quiet times amidst the fighting, or vice versa.

This is also a slightly warmer and much more versatile version of herself than Adlon played on Louie, where Pamela existed mainly to push the title character out of his comfort zone, whether he needed to be in a given moment or not. Sam is as blunt as Pamela, but because the show is told from her point of view, we get to see more sides of her (how in stride she takes all the absurdity of show business, for instance, after spending most of her life inside it) and understand where she's coming from. For an actress best known for her voice work (Bobby on King of the Hill in particular), Adlon has a remarkably expressive face, and some of the show's biggest laughs come from watching those expressions fluctuate when she's, say, getting examined by her OB/GYN, or listening to her mother Phyllis (Celia Imrie) embarrass herself in front of a director Sam has invited over for dinner.

Not everything in Better Things works, or fits together as well as on One Mississippi. But each show is lovely in its own way, and has the potential to fill that Louie-shaped hole that C.K. left in TV when he ran out of stories to tell about that version of himself.

“Write what you know” is one of the fundamental rules of writing, and with good reason. Autobiographical comedy can sometimes feel self-indulgent (autobiographical drama, too), but the good ones – and these are both very, very good shows right out of the box – use their intimate knowledge of their creators' own lives to speak truths that will resonate to an audience that hasn't been through the same experience.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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