Season Premiere: United States of Tara – “…youwillnotwin…”


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.

As Tara sits with her two children at Barnaby’s, Kate suggests she stop being so defeatist: if she still has no chance of succeeding in life, that might well mean that Kate will find herself in the same position in twenty years. The show has always been interested in how Tara’s kids would be affected by her disease, but what about how they will be affected by “Tara” herself? This isn’t Tara dealing with her DID, nor is it Tara dealing with the actions of her alters in her absence. Instead, this is simply Tara dealing with Tara, and her inability to write an essay on Somatization as she goes back to college to try to become a degree-holding woman capable of having a “real” job.

Somatization, of course, happens to describe the kinds of behaviors that Tara often exhibits as she deals with repressed elements of her past, as Tara’s desire to take a psychology class (taught by Eddie Izzard’s Dr. Hattares) clearly opens up numerous thematic avenues for the show to follow. And yet what works about this particular device is that this isn’t something that she is driven to do in order to explore her disease: getting her degree is to benefit Tara, not to defend Tara. She isn’t doing this to control her alters, fully aware that she might well transition at school and face the consequences therein. Her decision will obviously involve the alters, and surely her professor will learn of her condition and create numerous opportunities for a new exploration of her disease, but this is Tara’s problem first and foremost.

It’s your basic television storyline on some level, a fairly blatant effort to create a new story arc for the character, but something about “…youwillnotwin…” just feels natural. Part of it is that Diablo Cody is feeling incredibly comfortable with the series’ tone, able to create some distinctively Cody-esque dialogue but surrounding it with something much more real and grounded. It makes you realize that this is the perfect scenario for her skills as a writer, as her occasional flights of fancy (like the opening party which has a real neighborhood, rather than family, feel) are naturally supported by our ongoing relationships with these characters. Marshall’s “not boyfriend” Lionel (who I’m glad to see return) is perhaps the most consistently Cody-esque character the show has had, and yet even he is starting to feel more realistic the more time we spend with him.

Our time here is spent mostly with Neil and Charmaine, who are in what appears to be the most functional dysfunctional domestic partnership one can imagine, and with Tara’s attempts to return to the academic fold. On the former point, it’s hard to complain considering just how great Rosemarie Dewitt and Patton Oswalt are together – both characters are just really tremendously drawn, and watching them try to handle Charmaine’s pregnancy while maintaining their tension is an easy highlight of the premiere. This was, at least in part, due to the theme which ran through it: while Charmaine attempted to argue that she was independent because she wasn’t married (choosing instead to live with Kate and support herself by selling tiaras on Etsy), Neil correctly points out that she still requires the emotional support that he (and Tara, and everyone else) offers. His comment isn’t an indictment of her ability to support herself, but rather an acknowledgement that they are a partnership whether she wants to admit it or not.

It’s the point I think the premiere makes about Tara and her alters: while the relationship has often been considered an oppositional one, it has also been established that the alters are as much a defense mechanism as a disruptive force. This is especially clear as the episode opens, with Buck hunting down the half-brother who molested Tara and Charmaine in their childhoods. While Tara claims to be unaware of what Buck might have been doing on his little adventure, part of me thinks that she knows: she knows that they’re out hunting for Bryce, acting on the impulses that Tara is choosing to repress (in spite of Charmaine’s attempts to bring it to the surface on multiple occasions), and in some way that allows her to move on with her life.

The result is a sense of calm within the storm, as evidenced by Tara’s essay writing meltdown at episode’s end. There is something deep inside her that comes out as she returns to school, something that pushes Tara to the same kind of violent (and potentially suicidal) behavior that drove her away from school in the first place. However, whereas the alters were once there to block that out (by actually manifesting physically and taking matters into their own hands), what we see there is collaboration: Shoshana pontificates, Buck takes control, and Alice calms Tara’s nerves. While last introduced the notion of co-consciousness, here we see it deployed in a very conscious fashion and towards a purpose at least not directly related to her disease. Just as Neil and Charmaine need to acknowledge that they are a team, so too does Tara need to look to the alters as people on whom she relies (if not depends) on to move forward in her life.

It’s an intriguing scenario, one which I’m very excited to see unfold – while I have the entire season on hand, I don’t have time to dive into it, so I can only speculate on where things go from here. What I found interesting right off the bat, however, was that the sense of community was stronger – while each character is (as with last season) in a position to head off in their own little world, they seem to be doing so with a certain degree of support, and with characters focused less on expressing their individuality and more on exploring their relationships with other people. That’s an exciting avenue for the show to follow, and one which Cody seemed adept at exploring in the premiere at least.

Very much looking forward to seeing how this develops.

Cultural Observations

  • While Todd VanDerWerff is handling review duties over at The A.V. Club, I may occasionally fill in depending on his schedule. However, honestly, the chances of weekly reviews otherwise is fairly unlikely – my apologies.
  • Shall we poor one out for the show’s evocative and Emmy-winning title sequence, now replaced by a simple title card overlaid onto the opening shot of each episode? I understand the change, but I loved that title sequence, and the new text highlights that the “Tara” is in comic sans. Which, ew.
  • How funny that Charmaine corrects Kate on how to spell Neil’s name just after I check my press release to make sure that I am spelling it correctly in my notes. I was.
  • Neil’s proposal was played out as pathetic and painful, but Patton Oswalt is already so sadsack that it’s not like he had very far to fall. Love the man to death, but prideful he is not, and that’s what I love about Neil as a character. Also, “World’s Most Misleading Pictionary Artist” should go on a t-shirt.
  • Admittedly, I once again care less about Kate than everyone else in the family, but her struggles with the job market (and living down her past) at least offer a nice bit of continuity. The second season storylines ultimately felt like a temporary diversion, but now she’s forced to face the consequences of those actions and there’s some potential there.
  • “I love our little camera baby. We’ll name him Orlando.”
  • “Aw man, even if I knew it I’d still call him the black one.”

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