March 28th, 2011
When United States of Tara entered its second season, the Gregson family thought that everything had changed: Tara had defeated her alters through the use of medication, and the entire family was ready to move forward with something approaching a normal life. Of course, normalcy proved unattainable: the old alters returned, new alters emerged, and turmoil between family members left Max, Kate and Marshall confronting their own identities in light of their mother’s struggle.
What is immediately clear in the show’s third season premiere is that there is no such false normalcy. For better or for worse, the Gregson family has embraced (or will be forced to embrace) that they are in no way, shape, or form normal, and it shows in “…youwillnotwin…” It is a confident premiere on a number of levels, but primarily because it embraces the stabilizing influence of instability. By embracing the cyclical nature of life, and by placing the characters in positions to be impacted – but not defined by – those cycles, United States of Tara is in a position to continue to evolve without having to introduce dramatic new elements into the equation.
All it takes, it appears, is a bit of a push in the right direction and a willingness to ride the wave.
“From This Day Forward”
June 7th, 2010
I wish that I had more to say about United States of Tara’s second season finale, but for the most part I don’t. This is not to say that the episode wasn’t enjoyable, or well-acted, but rather it seemed that the show had more or less choreographed all of its reveals, and so the primary function of “From This Day Forward” was more or less appearing to reset things to the status quo.
Again, this isn’t a slight on the episode: with some strong performances and some intense emotional moments, I think the series nicely capped off a complex and intriguing second season. The problem is that it works a little bit too hard to get to the point where the Gregson family is dancing wistfully in a beautifully lit backyard, cutting away the clutter of their lives for that brief moment of bliss. I understand the impulse behind that action, and the catharsis of the episode is helped by the calmness of those final moments, but it seems to be putting a button on too many story points which went unresolved or were cast aside with remaining potential. The series kept hinting at hidden motivations or long-kept secrets, and yet after revealing the biggest secret of them all the rest were sort of just chalked up to either misdrection or the frakked up nature of the Gregson family.
There’s something about that which is just a bit too easy, and something which all the catharsis in the world isn’t going to fix, and I feel like the finale needed to acknowledge that just a little bit more.
“To Have and To Hold”
May 31st, 2010
“Is every single thing just lurking beneath the surface?”
United States of Tara isn’t a mystery show, per se, but there is a central search for answers at its core which we seem to be returning to once a season. After reaching out to her college rapist in an effort to discover the truth behind her condition only to discover that it went far deeper than that particular trauma, Tara stepped away from trying to find the source of her problems and instead tried to medicate and try to continue living life without that knowledge. However, as the second season has progressed, it’s clear that her condition is creating more strain in her life now than ever before, and through the help of a new alter (Shoshannah) and whatever it is that the Hubbard house brings out in her.
I recently caught up with the past three episodes of Tara (the end of the season turned out to be too busy to get to it live), and I’m on record as suggesting that Tara’s second season is perhaps the most confident on TV this year outside of Parks and Recreation and perhaps Sons of Anarchy. “To Have and to Hold” is another strong episode which speaks to both the mysteries of Tara’s past (which I think we have enough information to sort out, if not entirely comprehend) and the damage of Tara’s present, emphasizing the long-term ramifications of the former while reminding us that the gravity of the latter has yet to be determined.
“The Department of F*cked Up Family Services”
May 3rd, 2010
The challenge of the half-hour series intent on eroding the boundaries between comedy and drama is that a half-hour is not a lot of time. While hour-long series have the benefit of 40-50 minutes in which to draw out key themes or lay the groundwork for exciting climaxes, a show like United States of Tara has roughly 23-26 minutes in which to effectively accomplish the same thing.
In some cases, shows settle with telling less story, accepting that they can’t deal with issues as complicated as series with longer running times, but what’s struck me about Tara this year is that they’re not holding back. Not unlike the second season of Sons of Anarchy, it doesn’t feel like the show is saving stories for future seasons, or drawing things out. They know they don’t have time to waste, and they know the stories they want to tell, so Diablo Cody and Co. are just barreling on through with some pretty substantial success.
In the process, though, the show hasn’t been entirely transformed: the show has a much faster pace than last season, with more sources of conflict and a less predictable central protagonist, but the stories still come from someplace honest, and there are still scenes which feel like quiet ruminations amidst the chaos of it all. “The Department of F*cked Up Family Services” deals with a lot of pent up frustration from previous episodes, but it does so within a structure which manages to tell its own story at the same time – it’s not rocket science, really, but the show has a really strong hold on it this season.
April 19th, 2010
Last season, I managed to watch and enjoy an entire season of United States of Tara without writing about it beyond a preview, which seems like the sort of oversight which shouldn’t happen: sure, I don’t get paid to do this, and there are plenty of shows that I watch but don’t blog about (for various reasons), but this is a compelling and intriguing show featuring some great performances that seems like it would lend itself to the sort of analysis I like to do. And yet, here I am again this season – after writing about the premiere, I’ve fallen off the wagon for the past three weeks, and I still don’t really know why.
I think it happened last season because the show is admittedly paced a little bit slowly, and it seemed to be in a largely contemplative mood in regards to Tara’s conditions: if the show is going to do all the contemplation for me, largely playing out the paces of the stories we’d expect to see given its premise, then why do I need to write a thousand words about it? However, this season the show has switched gears: the show’s pacing has completely gone off the rails, and yet the characters continue to want to try to live as if things are normal, to ignore the chaos and try to sort of power their way through.
“Doin’ Time” manages to debrief a fairly substantial, and potentially show-breaking, development with an ease which reminds us that this show is on some really strong creative footing this year: while it remains at times slow and contemplative, it is applying those traits to situations that we couldn’t have imagined a season ago and making some damn fine television in the process.
March 22nd, 2010
Last week, Kelli Marshall noted that I had never reviewed a single episode of United States of Tara, Showtime’s comedy series which debuted last year and which won Toni Colette a much-deserved Emmy award in September. This seemed surprising to me, considering that I had quite enjoyed the series upon its debut and had found its first season pretty uniformly solid. I am still not entirely sure why I never took the time to review any individual episodes of the show, but I can at least confirm that it had nothing to do with the quality of the series.
What I’ve always liked about the show is that it isn’t afraid to take its protagonist to some dark and disturbing places: while the show is ostensibly labeled as a comedy, it knows that the same premise (Tara’s multiple personalities) which begets that comedy is just as capable of swinging to the side of dramatic, and so T’s promiscuity goes from humorous to tragic, and Buck can conversely swing from embarrassing to oddly comforting. The show does not have separate spheres of comedy and drama, but rather different circumstances wherein its premise shifts to meet the needs of the story.
Based on the season premiere, it’s clear that that Diablo Cody and company are very aware of the delicate balance the show requires, and so you have what is effectively a dramatic premiere where comedy and drama (mostly) come from the same place of uncertainty and insecurity, setting the show up for an intriguing sophomore season that will, hopefully, find more space in the blog rotation.
How We Distinguish Between Comic and Dramatic Television
November 6th, 2009
Mirror, mirror, on the wall – which television “comedy” is the least comic of them all?
There’s been some great back and forth on Twitter as of late surrounding the rankings of the best comedies currently on television, which is something that always brings out some controversial opinions. While I offered a very tentative ranking done without any sort of indepth scientific analysis on Twitter, I’m resistant to posting a more detailed list (like Jace at Televisionary, for example): I feel like there’s so many different categories of comedies on the air (long-running favourites which are very familiar, series which have improved so greatly that the relativity is almost blinding, and shows that are new and just finding themselves) that to rank them feels false.
However, I do think there’s something to be said for the fact that how we as critics (and viewers in general) individually define comedy is somewhat different from how the networks might define comedy. Genre definition in television is always a little bit slippery, especially when the oft-labeled “dramedy” exists, as has been demonstrated yearly at the Emmys when shows that walk the fine line are slotted into either category seemingly at random. Gilmore Girls is perhaps the most famous example, where Lauren Graham was submitting dramatic performances in a comedy category that perhaps fit the show in general but seemed to be out of place with the show’s highlights. The issue was never resolved (it was never nominated for Emmys outside of craft categories, despite the amazing work of Kelly Bishop/Graham), and right now there is perhaps more than ever before the sense that comedy and drama just aren’t clear divisions.
I was discussing the return of Showtime’s Nurse Jackie (returning alongside United States of Tara on March 22nd) with Maureen Ryan, and in particular I noted that I actively refuse to call Nurse Jackie a comedy. Mo, however, correctly noted that disqualifying Nurse Jackie calls into question a whole lot of cable “comedies,” and that this is a can of worms she (quite logically) doesn’t want to open.
I, apparently, like worms, so let’s dig into just why I refuse to accept certain shows as “comedy” in good conscience (and how my refusal is indicative of the role personal opinion plays in such classifications).
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.