The Anti-Cult of Personality: The Controlled Chaos of Showtime’s United States of Tara

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The Anti-Cult of Personality:

The Controlled Chaos of United States of Tara

When it was first announced, there was one word that could best described United States of Tara, the new Showtime comedy starring Toni Colette: quirky. Not only was it about a woman who has multiple personality disorder, and as a result becomes various different people depending on the situation, but it comes from Diablo Cody, the Oscar-winning but divisive writer whose work has been attacked for being too precious, too desperate to be bizarre that she was losing sight of what is realistic.

But in my opinion the skepticism about this was was unfounded: yes, the concept is quirky, and Cody’s dialogue is present albeit in a less obvious form than the earlier scenes in Juno, but there is a real sense of control here. The family at the show’s center is not a quirky family so much as it is a normal one who is forced to maintain that normality by controlling their reactions to the matriarchal struggles of our protagonist. The appearance of the various alters, whether it’s male vietnam war veteran Buck, teenaged T., or the 50s housewife Alice, is not a sudden shock to this family but rather something they have learned to deal with. Each of the alters have their own benefits and downsides within their family dynamic, and the point is not that this is a crazy or quirky show but rather that these people have to try to maintain normal lives in the face of those struggles.

There is a danger here that the show will become all about these wacky alters, and the craziness they represent, but the show isn’t fixated on them so much as it is on Tara, her life, and the reasons these alters emerge. It’s not a concept that would work if it was entirely let loose, or with a lead actress who isn’t able to pull off four separate characters, but through the strong setup and some great work from Toni Colette it’s hard not to be drawn into the United States of Tara.

What works about this show is that we are joining something in progress: this is not about a woman suddenly developing this disorder and the disruption it causes, but instead a family dealing with a mother’s decision to go off of her medication (which had numbed her into an anti-character) and return to the chaos that once was. The family knows how to deal with each of the alters: the daughter, Kate, quarrels with Alice over her youth values, takes advantage of T’s willingness to buy slutty clothes, and is repulsed by Buck’s masculinity, for example. And the son, Marshall, finds solace in Alice’s classic values, is judged most harshly by T for not being fun-loving enough, and balances his disapproval for Buck with the appreciation for his entertaining hyper-masculinity.

The show is less about who these alters are and rather why they emerge and the woman who is behind all of them; we get glimpses of Tara in the first two episodes, but we are more focused on the absence of Tara, a real mother and wife in these people’s lives. They’ve gotten used to living without her, during these stretches, at least mentally: her physical body is there (which is the most frustrating part for her husband), but what appears is actually some person that she can’t become, that she can’t contain. She becomes the teenaged T when she can’t deal with her daughter’s budding sexuality, and Buck when she feels her daughter threatened by her freaky hair boyfriend; Alice emerges when a group of housewives treat her like damaged goods, as if its a pity her family has to deal with such insanity. What always emerges is something intended to balance out, not dramatize, their lives: that it has the latter effect is sort of the inherent tragedy of it all, one not overplayed by the comic elements of the show.

This basic setup means that this is something they know is going to happen, and something they just have to go along with, and it allows the show to feel more like a character study than some kind of farce. On that front, Toni Colette deserves most of the credit, diving with gusto into each of these roles. While each is defined by their wardrobe (T with her thong underwear, Buck with his vests and trucket hat, Alice with her aprons), there is also a posture to them: the way Colette holds her jaw as Buck is a stunning transformation, for example, but there are just as subtle changes in her performance as the other characters. She is the right actress for this part, up to the task of inhabiting these various personalities while also  mubeing able to draw back and create Tara at the same time.

Because Tara is still a character here: one of the most intriguing scenes in the two episodes is when Tara sits down for a family summit and discusses what happened the day before: what kind of credit card purchases she made as T, what kind of damage she did as Buck, and how her family reacted to it all. In that moment, you see the impact this is having on Tara, and can only presume that the drugs were creating something worse if she would be willing to put herself through this. And while I might find the alters to be the source of most of the show’s comedy, I nonetheless revert back to Tara as a figure much like Showtime’s other housewife in turmoil, Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker, Weeds).

That show is about the sheer chaos of her life and her attempts to control it all without going insane; here, we have someone who has a mechanism for keeping it all under control but within that there is the same type of chaos that, at first, would have been disruptive and shocking comedy at its finest. But Cody has struck on a voice here that is much more introspective, giving us a chance to see a family with two children at important turning points in their teenaged life and trying to find stability with a mother who struggles valiantly to provide it and often provides quite the opposite. That’s not just an excuse for quirkiness, it’s a real television series designed as a strong acting showcase and an intriguing investigation into the ramifications of a disease like this one.

Through two weeks, I’m on board: Marshall is perhaps my favourite character thanks to his very no-nonsense approach to life in general running up against some insecurities (plus, the “literary boners” line was genius), but with a strong supporting cast (Rachel Getting Married’s Rosemarie DeWitt, Patton Oswalt, Nate Corddry, and of course Arrested Development’s Tony Hale) and a compelling premise there’s, well, multiple (*rimshot*) reasons to stick around.

So, if you’ve been watching as well, what are your thoughts? Am I drinking the Diablo Cody kool-aid or what?

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1 Comment

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One response to “The Anti-Cult of Personality: The Controlled Chaos of Showtime’s United States of Tara

  1. fantastic write-up, myles. i haven’t seen the show yet, but you’ve got me curious–particularly you address my worry, that the multiple personality disorder would be used as a gimmick for laughs or unearned drama, in much the same way it’s used for big twist endings to wrap up bad short stories or mediocre movies (IDENTITY).

    the idea of taking someone with m.p.d. and showing them interacting with people who are used to ALL these people, and also giving the audience some insight into why each personality may exist without too heavy a hand, is actually a pretty nice idea for a show. i do still worry, though, that the switching between those characters could get a little hammy after a whole season of television, or could lead to some predictably timed switches (personalities coming around at JUST the right time for convenient plot turns).

    ultimately, though, you talked me into checking it out, so, success!

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