United States of Tara – “The Department of F*cked Up Family Services”

“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.

“Torando” played up the way in which Tara’s alters have become somewhat unpredictable as they emerge in particular circumstances (as Tara “cycled” through the alters in a way we haven’t really seen before), but it has to be noted that in most circumstances (including in this week’s episode) the alters emerge for a reason. Alice shows up in this week’s episode because Max is pressuring Tara to play into a certain role, as she is the most defensive alter and would be the best to “handle” a situation like that one. The alters are a response, which is why Tara transitions from Alice to Gimmy within Marshall’s epic rant at episode’s end; while Alice may have been best to handle the Family Services meeting (or at least believes she would be the best), she wasn’t able to handle Marshall’s emotional speech about what living in this family has done to his ability to tell people the truth, so Gimmy emerges.

There are still some scenes in the episode which feel like they’re still building towards something, rather than reaching such a climactic and chaotic finale: Tara’s time with Linda gives Tara someone to talk to about her disease who has a cryptic view of life which fits in with the strangeness of the alters (and reveals that Tara, in some form, painted a portrait of Don Hubbard that she doesn’t remember painting and which brings out Alice), while Kate’s developing an alter of her own as she looks to develop Princess Valhalla Hawkwind into an internet pin-up girl who gets some free dishwashers. The former development is dramatically complex and interesting, while the latter development is as vague as Kate’s story has always been. However, once I decided that the Princess is an alter it’s made the story more interesting, and Kate’s frustration with “her” friend being stolen by her mother may play out.

Still, this episode is all about Max and Marshall and their comparative patience with the situation at hand. For Max, his “punch first, talk later” approach is bleeding into the rest of his life, as he stresses out about the state of the house in the wake of the tornado and ahead of the visit from Family Services. He spends the episode stewing in the fact that he’s had to pretend to be the perfect family for years, and while Tara is fine with relying on past experience he’s about ready to give up on the whole charade even if he’s not ready to admit it yet. He’s done with lies: he forces Charmaine to tell Neal the truth, and it’s the ultimate punch in the gut when he’s forced to live a lie (this time with Charmaine) to get through the interview after Gimmy emerges.

Marshall, meanwhile, has had too much patience for too long: he’s always resisted telling anyone how he felt, and so his situation with Courtney gets dragged out: if he could just put his foot down and tell her that he doesn’t want to enter into her bizarre conception of a healthy relationship, it could have ended in that opening scene (and without the presence of moral support and sympathy pie), but he isn’t that kind of person. His speech at the end has Marshall at his breaking point, tearing apart his entire family (and Courtney) because he feels that he’s living in a house where he has to lie to himself to get through the day. Keir Gilchrist was fantastic in that final sequence, pulling off the raw emotion that we’ve never seen from the normally shy Marshall, and it leads to the uncomfortable final scenes as the Gregsons play out a different lie than they’re used to with even more tucked beneath the surface.

The real lesson in the episode, though, is that there was a way to use the truth to their advantage: the tornado affected everyone, so it would be a great excuse for why the house wasn’t clean or why things were a bit disorganized. They didn’t need to lie and clean up the mess, they simply needed to be themselves – perhaps Tara wouldn’t have switched to Alice to try to cope with the stress, and perhaps things might have avoided the explosion. However, I don’t know if Marshall’s outburst could have been avoided – that’s been bubbling under the surface for too long, and there are some things that you can’t keep from happening. This season has been about those moments, about using a string of events to get to fundamental truths about this family which provide some really strong dramatic television without entirely sacrificing the show’s humour, and this was another episode that got to that point through some strong storytelling and some great performances from Colette and Gilchrist in particular.

Cultural Observations

  • As Alan Sepinwall mentioned last week, the past few episodes have been strong evidence that the “costumes” were unnecessary for the alters last season – we haven’t seen T. yet (she’s on the street of Seattle, apparently), but both Alice and Buck are clear without the use of the outfits (although Buck kept the glasses, perhaps unnecessarily).
  • Patton Oswalt is a really compelling actor, and this character has always sat nicely in a space which is capable of dramatic material because he doesn’t feel like a broad sidekick of any sort. Accordingly, his rather heartbreaking response to Charmaine’s news (coming from Max) that she is carrying his child feels rather poignant. There wasn’t a lot of focus on Charmaine here, but Rosemarie DeWitt was great as she chose Royals talk over real discussion and as she was then forced to play the role of wife and mother right after being told that she wasn’t ready to do the latter.
  • Tara wakes up on Hubbard’s grave and apparently painted his portrait at some point: does this imply that one of the alters (perhaps Alice) was involved in some sort of relationship with the man? Or is it just some sort of post-traumatic response to his death which coincides with the house’s energy waking up her alters after their brief vacation? I’m still unsure, but the season’s at a strong place right now.
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