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.
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.
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.