Everybody’s a star, sort of. We all play versions of ourselves on social media, as we hand-pick facts from our lives, marry them to our idealized or comic or political or artistic self-image, and then post them for our audience to like, love, loathe, relate to, smile upon, brush off, ruminate over. We curate our lives, put on a little show, deliver an ongoing memoir for people to scroll through.
In recent years, a number of comics have been doing this with television — not Facebook, or Twitter, or Instagram — as their platform, notably Larry David on “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” They use pieces of their autobiographies to create funnier or more poignant versions of themselves. “Louie” has been a model of this genre, as Louis C.K. gives us the ordinary days of a New York comic named Louie dealing with single parenting and various existential questions. This week, two new series, Pamela Adlon’s “Better Things” on FX and Tig Notaro’s “One Mississippi” on Amazon, also adapt their stars’ lives into TV narratives, both successfully. Like “Louie,” they are deeply personal series.
Coincidentally, Adlon and Notaro are connected to C.K., who executive produces both shows. Adlon has been featured on “Louie” in a number of the best episodes as Louie’s complex maybe-soulmate, and she also produced and wrote for the show. Notaro did a standup set in August 2012 about her then-new cancer diagnosis, and C.K. quickly released the now well-known set on his website, ushering Notaro into the mainstream. “In 27 years doing this,” C.K. tweeted at the time, “I’ve seen a handful of truly great, masterful standup sets. One was Tig Notaro last night at Largo.”
So not surprisingly, you can see the influence of “Louie” in both shows, in their drama-infused half-hour formats, in their unwillingness to tell conventional stories and spell out themes for the viewers, in their attraction to small moments and strange ironies.
“Better Things,” which C.K. also co-created with Adlon, is particularly good. It’s a show that represents the tenor of life so accurately you might be tempted to miss the great art and effort behind it all. Adlon plays Sam Fox, a former child actress and single mother who, like Adlon, is raising three daughters and working in LA as a middle-age live-action and voice actress. There’s no big there there, really; Sam deals with Hollywood sexism and ageism, faces bullying by her relatively entitled kids, and copes with her odd British mother, who lives across the street. Small incidents, such as Sam’s visit to the gynecologist, or her outburst while voicing a cartoon animal, form what is usually considered “plot.”
But it’s all remarkably winning and insightful, once you let go of the network-bred expectation of high-concept story lines. Adlon is a powerhouse lead; she prevails with the passion, cynicism, chaos, anger, profanity, and resilient humor that have become her trademark — not just on “Louie,” but on “Californication,” where she was indelible as the brash Marcy Runkle. She is a happily crazy lady on “Better Things,” which premieres Thursday at 10 p.m. She is a lovable, helium-voiced survivor no matter how much her daughters tune her out, no matter how bonkers her mother gets, no matter how insulted she gets by the entertainment industry. I’d watch her pick up her kids’ clothes — wait, I did, and loved it.
“One Mississippi,” which is available on Friday, has a juicier and more dramatic pitch than “Better Things,” as the fictionalized Tig returns to her Mississippi hometown after tragedy. If you follow the world of comedy, you probably know the deal: In the same year, Tig loses her mother suddenly, goes through a breakup, has an intestinal disease, and undergoes a double mastectomy for breast cancer. It’s a pretty bleak setup.
But the six-episode season relies on the same small moments of humor, frustration, sorrow, and triumph as “Better Things” — Tig’s fixation on an un-listened-to voice mail from her mother, for example, or her unwillingness to look at her own chest as she carefully gets into the bathtub. When her mother dies in the hospital, the nurse has one of those wonderfully inappropriate laughing fits. Those are the most powerful and redeeming parts of the show, which was co-written by Notaro and Diablo Cody of “Juno.” Also powerful: an outstanding performance by John Rothman as Tig’s stepfather, Bill. Rothman will take you through many different phases of understanding as he slowly lets us get to know Bill’s truth.
Notaro is an appealing lead, if you like bone-dry humor and deadpan, which I do. She carries the show in her low-key way, and she, like the show itself, warms up a little bit more with each new episode. While Adlon jumps off the screen at us, with her great expressiveness, we go to Notaro slowly, surely, entering her world of pain with the promise of dark humor and personal redemption once we get there.
Starring Pamela Adlon, Celia Imrie, Mikey Madison, Hannah Alligood, Olivia Edward. On FX, Thursday at 10 p.m.
Starring Tig Notaro, Noah Harpster, John Rothman, Casey Wilson. On Amazon, available FridayMatthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Matthew