“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.
June 26th, 2009
After watching the two-hour event that is the Virtuality pilot, I think I can understand why FOX was resistent to picking the show up to series.
It isn’t that FOX is allergic to science fiction: it goes into next season with the genre’s two biggest television properties, Fringe and Dollhouse, in its lineup. Rather, there’s a particular way that it likes its science fiction, a preference that both Dollhouse and Fringe fit into comfortable. Both shows, although expanding heavily on their serialized elements and genre transmorgifications later in their freshman seasons, started out as genrified takes on the procedural mystery model, combining a high concept with what is arguably a more accesible and thus lower form of weekly episodic television. For FOX executives worried about selling the show to advertisers and viewers alike, it was the ace up their sleeve, the caveat that allowed them to both give the appearance of openness to genre programming and satisfy their desire to eat away at CBS’ dominance in the field.
The reason Virtuality wasn’t ordered to series is because it is one giant, enormous middle finger to such ludicrous practices of watering down science fiction upon its arrival so as to pretend as if the people who don’t like science fiction are going to stick around once things get weird. What makes good science fiction is the balls out willingness to question reality, and to break away from any and all conventions, all qualities that both Fringe and Dollhouse are capable of and yet never got to reach until FOX was satisfied that the show was really just CSI with insane science or The Unit with personality implants. Virtuality, however, wastes no time in crafting a world where nothing where we question everything, and is thus a world that any science fiction fan in their right mind wants to explore further.
All but dead in the water despite the strange lead-up to this airing, Virtuality is a fascinating pilot, a god awful standalone television movie considering how it ends, and, should it truly find itself on the wrong end of FOX’s idiocy, another sign that high science fiction may be a thing of the past on network television.
But, for now, excuse me if I spend a bit of time talking about how awesome it was.
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.