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.
While everyone is, justifiably, talking about Tara’s transition back into Buck at the end of “Yes,” I think the episode is dominated by a different sort of alter: Tara on Drugs. When the show started, Tara was off her meds for the first time in a long time, and Tara was grounded and down-to-earth even if she was prone to fall into other personalities. The argument the show made was that, for Tara, the alters were something natural, defence mechanisms and outlets that helped her maintain balance. Drugs, while keeping the alters at bay, turned her into someone different, and she decided to choose the uncertainty surrounding the alters over the certain strangeness of being heavily medicated.
But the first season saw her alters emerge in ways that scared her: her animalistic alter emerged to terrorize her parents, T emerged to push away Marshall’s crush (or, more accurately, seduce him and push away Marshall in the process), and while there were occasionally instances where the alters proved helpful (like Buck emerging to prove surprisingly helpful with Charmaine after her surgery, for example) Tara’s life was more or less falling apart. When she ended up institutionalized, and she realized that the trauma that led to her condition pre-dated the accepted origin story, she had basically run out of options: she chose drugs over the trauma she had caused her family, and that decision was meant to offer them peace of mind.
And yet, in “Yes,” everyone is on edge: she throws away their clothes at the start of the episode, but things are just far enough “off” that Max and the rest of the family see every little quirk as a potential alter re-emergence. What struck me about the way Toni Colette plays the character while medicated is that it honestly feels like an entirely different character to the point where we’re able to see why everyone is weirded out. Before, Tara went from a character to a human being when she switched back from one of her alters, but now her baseline seems to be a bizarre sort of self-awareness that has her embracing the neighbourhood’s reputation of the family, and has her doing and saying things that we’re not used to hearing. Colette does a fantastic job of making Tara just strange enough that we’re right with Max when he thinks that Alice has re-emerged when he finds her wearing an apron, and we understand why Charmaine’s fiance Nick would presume that her reenactment of the dance from the end of Slumdog Millionaire was some sort of alternate personality.
It’s really a brilliant little structural decision from Cody, especially considering the fact that the episode ends with the return of one of her alters. It’s a reminder that Tara on drugs is as much of an “alter,” if not moreso, than T. or Alice, and while the alters emerge to help Tara process major events the drugs do nothing but stifle that sort of process. When Tara enters the empty house, in a wonderfully ethereal scene that captures her unquestionable curiosity and terror surrounding why the old man did himself in, something happens, and we were shown why: medicated Tara has no outlet for her emotions or her feelings, with her existing alters unable to emerge, so it makes sense that she would be driven towards an alter as a way of dealing with the sense of fear (or confusion) that his suicide represents. The alters were evidence of her process of confronting life’s challenge, and eliminating that process leads to internal confusion and frustration that will struggle to get loose, and I thought “Yes” really captured this with some great subtlety both in terms of writing and performance.
The rest of the episode, of course, is somewhat less subtle, if only due to the heavy focus on Tara’s situation in the episode. This is not to say that the show isn’t on an interesting path with a character like Marshall, who spent last season pursuing a crush but who starts this season coming to terms with how his homosexuality is received by more than a single individual. I thought the story veered into some pretty predictable territory, with the cafeteria “Gayble” being a very Diablo Cody-style of quippy and the school’s administration being just the right amount of intolerant to inspire Marshall to become more involved, but I think it’s a really intelligent next step for the character. Similarly, while Rosemarie DeWitt is criminally underused in the premiere, the idea of Charmaine getting the husband (or ring, if you prefer) she always wanted has plenty of potential for the future, and both stories fit nicely into the two montages that sort of give us a glimpse at where things stand with the various characters.
The only real problem, and one that’s similar to last season, is Kate. While in the case of Tara the drama and the comedy tend to come from the same place, Kate’s story is a little bit too far on the comic side for me. Her early graduation means that the show no longer needs to treat her like a high school student, and so she’s given a basic workplace storyline that feels like one big parody. Brie Larson is not an overtly comic actress, so she doesn’t quite sell the character’s ignorance to the true nature of the job, so the first scene at the collection agency (as she continue to act as though she is going to be a spy) just never clicks. When the end montage has the character successfully getting a “yes” (which seems to me to be a bit tenuous considering she hasn’t actually collected any of the money, but then again the show isn’t all that interested in realistic depictions of collection agencies), it doesn’t feel like it’s been earned, and instead seems like something the show has contrived to give the character a storyline. While I thought her story at Barnaby’s last year (with Nate Corddry) was comparatively problematic, it at least felt like it straddled drama/comedy more realistically, whereas this was played for more broad jokes than any sort of nuanced character position and thus felt even more incongruous with the show’s tone.
But that’s one dark spot in an otherwise really well-executed premiere. It is, of course, mostly setup: we don’t yet know how Hubberd’s death will affect Tara, or how this might shed light on the circumstances wherein the other alters first emerged (their origin stories, if you will). What makes “Yes” work is that Diablo Cody focuses on the tenuous nature of Tara’s “sanity” in the wake of her medication, and demonstrates that something as seemingly tangential as a neighbour’s suicide can raise questions and apprehensions that medication is unable to contain. And so we end the episode with Tara, as Buck, hitting on Joey Lauren Adams, and we’re left to wonder whether this turn of events was any better than the destructive path that Tara was on when she went back on the drugs.
That the show remains funny and enjoyable amidst these sorts of dark thematic questions remains a great accomplishment, and it means I’m more than intrigued to see where the season goes from here.
- True story: I watched the premiere ahead of time, and was convinced that Tara was actually channeling Don Hubberd as a fifth alter in that final scene. It didn’t read as Buck to me, for whatever reason, perhaps due to the lack of the outfit that we’re used to seeing. As such, eight of you read this post while it was still basically crazy talk, but if it turns out that Hubberd does become the new alter (there’s one coming down the pipe) I’ll considering myself ahead of my time.
- I enjoyed how the Hubberd death started spreading as an urban legend of sorts, and how his death turned his life into a story when before it was more or less static and lifeless. The dinner sequence has the neighbours (including Ira Gilligan aka Michael Hitchcock) talking about the idea that he had tried to commit suicide in other ways before restoring to a gun, but then Kate has him doing so in five different ways. It’s a nice touch of morbid realism.
- In the same sense, note how Hubberd’s secretive life (and his car that never moves) inspire Marshall (at least partially) to make the grand gesture with the purple carnations – some nice crosstalk there, something missing from Kate’s story.
- We got the sense that Max’s business is expanding, in that he’s considering buying the house next door and presenting some sort of elaborate landscaping strategy for a set of golf course executives in one of the montages, but John Corbett definitely had a lighter workout in the episode than we’re used to (especially since so much of Tara’s story was done in isolation). Looking forward to seeing how his character takes to this new scenario.
- While the first two episodes of the season have leaked online, I want to avoid any spoilers for those who are patient or who don’t want to pirate their television content – as a result, if you are amongst those who have watched the episodes, please refrain from discussing any details of Episode Two.