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United States of Tara: Season 1
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The USA cable network's marketing slogan "Characters Welcome" would be a good fit for The United States of Tara. This off-center Showtime series has a slew of them--prim and proper suburban housewife Alice, beer-swilling hell-raiser Buck (a male), and hard-partying teen T. All of them are portrayed by Toni Collette, who deservedly won an Emmy for her astonishing performance(s) as Tara, a wife and mother struggling with dissociative identity disorder. The first episode establishes the series' high concept, but the show quickly finds its groove as it explores the turmoil of Tara's life and the effect DID has on her marriage and family: her exceedingly patient and supportive husband Max (John Corbett), who has to fight off Tara's more sexually aggressive "alters"; her sensitive son Marshall (Keir Gilchrist); rebellious teenage daughter Kate (Brie Larson); and resentful sister Charmaine (Rosemarie DeWitt, Rachel's Getting Married). As the series begins, Tara has stopped taking her meds, which opens the doors for her other personalities to reveal themselves, usually at stressful or inappropriate times. In the first episode, Tara/Buck beats up Kate's physically abusive boyfriend. In another, she appears at a parent-teacher conference as Alice. This first season establishes Tara's uniquely dysfunctional family dynamic ("It doesn't have to be weird," Tara offers at one point as she is debriefed about one of her alter's latest shenanigans) and is propelled by the mystery of what traumatic incident caused Tara to crack. Diablo Cody, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Juno, created and cowrote the series, and for the most part she cools it with the distracting Cody-speak (at one point there is a gratuitous reference to the obscure syndicated series Small World). This series power-jams it with a superb ensemble cast, including Valerie Mahaffrey (Eve on Northern Exposure) as Tara's overwhelmed therapist, Patton Oswalt as Charmain's sometime lover, Nathan Corddry as Kate's too-attentive boss, and Pamela Reed and Fred Ward as Tara's parents. The United States of Tara is an unconventional family dramedy and a sly look at gender roles ("Over the course of a day, how many different women do we have to be?," a well-meaning new friend asks Tara at one point). And Collette is a marvel to watch. We pledge our allegiance. --Donald Liebenson
Stills from United States of Tara: Season One (Click for larger image)
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Sitting Down with Diablo Cody
Meet Toni Collette
First episode of The Tudors Season 3
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Top Customer Reviews
ABOUT THE SHOW
Plainly put: Tara has a dissociative personality disorder, better known as having multiple personalities. Hearkening back to the comment about her range, you can see it here. She starts off with three personalities: a hip, school-age girl who competes with the daughter of the family for guys; a redneck, trailer-trash (same difference, I know) man whose primary interests are women and drinking beer, respectively; and a Stepford housewife, complete with anachronistic language and dress styles. She plays each of these individuals perfectly; you don't see a single trace of Toni in them, and you don't see any credibility conflicts due to bleed-overs, that is, when she's the hip youngster, you really believe it, and when she's the redneck, you really believe it. Her face aside, you wouldn't know that the same woman is playing these characters.
The rest of the family consists of her husband, a business owner of a landscaping/construction company; her daughter who is positively obnoxious and self-entitled; and her son, who seems like he's the son of the Stepford housewife personality--he's put-together, well-spoken, nerdily dressed, and domestic. (He makes dinner and enjoys baking.) Oh, and he's gay, but it's not so much of a focus. Then there is Tara's sister, who can be described aptly as a walking, roving mess who has self-confidence issues and trends toward promiscuity. (She even offers to snatch up Tara's husband from her.)
Pretty simple: a family dealing with a matriarch that doesn't quite fit the typical matriarchal role because of her disparate personalities, two of which are impressively disruptive and embarrassing. The shenanigans affect the family in different ways even though it's clear that they're used to disorder. The antics bleed over into the school lives of the children and the work life of the husband.
Dissociative issues aside, each family members deals with his or her own issues. The self-entitled daughter is constantly trying to seek her independence through finding a job, sleeping with guys, and drinking or snorting anything she can get her hands on. The father is remarkably played and shows both resignation and maturity in dealing with his wife's issues. He's very laissez faire and rolls with the multitude of punches thrown at him and the family.
The son, Marshall, is played well. He has the underpinnings of a complex character, but he never arrives there. The directors keep it simple with him. What should be applauded is the fact that his sexuality wasn't the thing that ruled his life. There is an arc in which he falls for a fellow student who is bisexual possibly, but more likely confused. Other than that, he deals with bullying and life with his unpredictable mother. Again, well-played and simplistic.
When reading the show's story before watching the first episode, I found the story to be compelling, but I didn't see it as something that could be sustained on a long-term basis. In other words, there is only so much that you can do with different personalities, even if it's three of them. (She later develops two others.) And this is where the show encounters problem inevitably. By season three, they had run out of ideas, so they started haphazardly injecting new elements into the plot, hoping that something would stick. It didn't.
For example, at the end of season two, she develops an animal personality, essentially a feral creature that has a penchant for urinating on people and inanimate objects. There's a small arc surrounding how this animal came to be, but you really don't hear much about it after a few of the first episodes in season three. It was like they put something new out there for the sole purpose to see if people would bite. If they did, they could then build a greater arc around the character. If they didn't, they'd move on to something else.
And that's just what they did. They introduced yet another character, a psychologist who is intelligent and the most self-confident of all her personalities (called "alters" in the show). But it wasn't a character that stuck, so they dropped her and moved on to something else. The show was getting embarrassing and desperate by this point.
I can't even recall anything from the final season even though I watched it, so that tell you how silly the entire production got.
The show was good despite the downward fall near the end, a fall that deserved to be put out its misery. If you want great acting, a decent plot, beautiful settings, and interesting characters, you'll find it here. Just don't plan for it to last, because it won't.