United States of Tara – “Doin’ Time”

“Doin’ Time”

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.

I want you to imagine at the start of the first season of this show the idea that Tara would develop a fifth alter which would serve as her own therapist. Heck, I want you to imagine completely out of context the idea of a woman serving as their own therapist. In both cases, I think we’re be entirely skeptical, and even last week I was sort of on the fence about the story’s effectiveness, but then I watched this episode and realized that I entirely buy it. I buy that the only person who could possibly be Tara’s therapist is someone she invents for herself, and that the only therapist who would be capable of being on call to deal with her various traumas would be one of her own creation. If we accept, as the show spent much of last season demonstrating, that the alters are a defence mechanism against traumatic experiences in her past, then it would make sense that a new alter would emerge to deal with the trauma of the alters re-emerging despite her attempts to medicate.

That this makes sense very much depends on Toni Colette, who has brought Shoshannah to life in a way which makes me look past the obvious green screen and embrace this character and their perspective on Tara’s life. She asks all of the questions that Tara is too afraid to ask herself, the questions she wants to be asked so that she has an excuse to open up; she even asks the question that has been sitting between Tara and Max ever since the alters first emerged, the question of whether their relationship worked because of or in spite of the Dissociative Identity Disorder. And while it sounds crazy, it’s something that even Max gravitates towards once he realizes that he’s found something who understands his wife better than he does, and through it all we believe it: as skeptical as outside observers would be, the story feels entirely real.

“Doin’ Time” was filled with such bits of reality. Marshall’s struggle with his sexual identity could have seemed cheesy, but you realize here that it isn’t a struggle: after having sex with Courtney he knows exactly who he is, but he becomes terrified of the notion of destroying her self-esteem to dump her, too afraid to damage her thanks to a childhood spent witnessing the impact of similar (but not comparative) damage done to his mother. Marshall’s storyline is somewhat similar to Kurt’s coming out in Glee’s “Preggers,” but the difference is that we don’t abandon Marshall once he comes out to his father – here, we follow through on how his navigation of his sexuality affects his life, and in the process we’re getting some nice subtle work from Keir Gilchrist. Even Brie Larson’s Kate, whose storyline is still pretty flimsy outside of Viola Davis’ usual brilliance, is getting some strong one-liners, and was part of that wonderful little pancakes scene as she tries to use sarcasm to dispel the madness of it all and just can’t bring herself to do it.

The show is working at a faster pace this season, as we’ve burned through Buck’s affair with Pammy, Marshall’s first sexual experience, Max’s arrest, Kate’s viral video debut, and Charmaine’s engagement and pregnancy in the span of five episodes, but the show hasn’t lost its contemplative focus. Things may be chaotic, but the chaos is only revealing more questions, and continues to spend time considering them quite carefully. The show is less contemplative but is simultaneously offering more for the viewer to contemplate, showing a complexity it didn’t have last season and (finally) driving me to write about the show again, hopefully not for the last time.

Cultural Observations

  • I loved the honesty present in the conversation as Charmaine and Tara discussed Neil being the baby’s father – she wasn’t trying to justify it, but rather quite honestly making the argument that she wants to marry the image of Nick and wants a life with Neil. While there are times when I wonder if that sort of honesty rings true with the vanity Charmaine can often portray, her pregnancy and the news of Neil being the father seems like a large enough event to force some clarify, and Rosemarie DeWitt remains fantastic.
  • Speaking of “Crazy but Believable,” I had some issues believing that Pammy would be able to rationalize her way around the Tara/Buck thing the way she did (in terms of completely separating the two in her mind), but I liked the way she responded to Max. She isn’t completely unhinged, still able to defend herself and push Max’s buttons, but she also has certain delusions when it comes to romance, willing to look beyond Buck’s appearance to find someone who actually cared about her (which Max’s apology tip does not, in any way, indicate).
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