[18 January 2009]
United States of Tara adds a twist to the suburban sitcom formula. Along with the usual assortment of bickering relatives, the show offers Tara (Toni Collette), who suffers from dissociative identity disorder, more commonly known as multiple personality disorder. This means she brings three more distinct alternate personalities to the quirky family mix.
The pilot starts just as Tara’s gone off of her medication (she can’t stand the side effects) and her kindred are getting reacquainted with her alters: prim Alice, gruff biker dude Buck, and T, a promiscuous teenager. Although Tara’s gracious son Marshall (Keir Gilchrist) appreciates her disorder because, in his words, it means “We get to be interesting,” the personalities are in many ways the least remarkable part of the show. Their one-note characterizations grow quickly tiresome and Tara’s changes become predictable.
While the portrayal of the disorder is gimmicky, the show sustains a particular charm, thanks to solid performances and its honest treatment of the complex relationships in this unconventional family. Collette, in particular, gives her all, suffering the humiliations of sporting a thong “whale tail” hanging out of her low cut jeans as T and modulating her bearing, voice, and expression as she essentially plays four distinct characters.
Tara’s alters show up unexpectedly, at least to the family. We are less surprised, as their appearances follow a familiar pattern: she conveniently morphs into the personality most likely to help the group out of a particular pickle. Also unsurprisingly, the alters allow her to articulate the things she’s been thinking as Tara, but could never say. As homophobic Buck, Tara sarcastically thanks Marshall, who is struggling with his homosexuality, for some “homo-made” muffins he’s baked. Later, Buck comes in handy after Tara sees daughter Kate (Brie Larson) being pushed around by her high school boyfriend. Unlike Tara, Buck has no qualms about punching around a teenager to defend Kate’s honor.
Later, when Tara must deal with the chaos, literal and emotional, her other alters are causing, she changes into Alice, the prototypical 1950s housewife, a neat freak and mean baker who can whip the family into shape and make pancakes every morning with perfect red manicure intact.
Although Tara struggles, particularly with the frustration of not remembering her alters’ antics, the family remains good humored about their unique predicament. The pilot sees Tara’s disorder played mostly for laughs, an approach that occasionally feels strained and misses opportunities to explore the broader effects of her problem. This is, after all, a serious disease and any suburban mom who gets into a public brawl with her teenaged daughter’s boyfriend is sure to suffer more than just morning-after embarrassment.
After the first couple of episodes, however, the show tackles more complex subjects, such as Tara’s flailing sex life with husband Max (John Corbett) and her relationship with sister Charmaine (Rosemarie DeWitt), who doesn’t believe her disease is real. In turning the focus away from Tara’s alters, the show turns more into a satisfyingly conventional quirky cable dramedy. Tara’s efforts to make a new friend or be a reliable mother in the shadow of her disease can be poignant; she’s at heart a lonely woman trying to step outside of herself as herself, anxious that one of her alters will pop up to spoil things again.
Unfortunately, such emotional detail tends to be obscured by dialogue that’s almost too clevver, a signature of writer Diablo Cody’s style. United States of Tara is tonally reminiscent of Juno, especially in Tara’s barb-tongued teenagers. Those who found the film’s titular character pretentious and precious will have similar problems with Tara‘s quippy characters, as when Kate tells Tara that her attempts to talk about sex make her sound like “a Lifetime lady tampon movie.”
Like Juno, United States of Tara is a meditation on the normalcy of being different. Tara’s disorder is a metaphor for everyone, voiced at one point by one of her new clients, a ladder-climbing salesperson who asks, “Over the course of the day, how many different women do we have to be?” Tara and her relatives, particularly the bedwetting cinephile Marshall, try to fit in and never quite make it, but find love and support along the way, tempered by the occasional humiliation.
In its message of acceptance and familial love, United States of Tara veers dangerously close to those “Lifetime lady tampon movies” Kate mocks. Although the show’s odd subject matter, premium-cable profanity, and preoccupation with sex make it “edgy” on the outside, it’s still a rather conventional family sitcom. The challenge is whether it can find freshness in this setup, and whether Tara’s alters will ultimately get too much in the way.