United States of Tara and Its Equally Dysfunctional Cable Neighbors

The Gregsons. The Botwins. The Henriksons. Most of my recent favorite TV families live on cable. But do they all have to be so dysfunctional? Blame the Sopranos.

United States of Tara recently started its second season on Showtime. Toni Collette plays the title character, who is the mother and wife of a seemingly typical suburban family. Except that she suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder. Tara is sometimes teenager T, perfect housewife Alice, redneck trucker guy Buck, therapist Shoshanna, and a weird subhuman creature that likes to pee on people. In Collette’s hands, this surprisingly all works -- I have never had a moment watching the show where I did not believe in Tara’s transformations.

The supporting cast is also excellent. John Corbett plays Tara’s husband. He’s one of those actors who I always like to watch. Ever since Northern Exposure, he’s made everything he’s in better -- see My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Sex and the City for examples. Rosemarie Dewitt steals all her scenes as Tara’s long-suffering sister. Keir Gilchrist and Brie Larson are the teenagers in the household who each are perpetually on the edge of their own meltdowns. (And I also enjoy occasional walk-on Patton Oswalt as Corbett’s buddy and Dewitt’s once and future love.)

Season one focused on Tara’s multiple personalities and their effect on the family. Everyone seemed resigned to having four or five mommies, depending on how you count, but they handled it with good humor and fun. There was a bit of a mystery as to whether a pivotal event in Tara’s past had led to her disorder, but really it was an extended character study of a family dealing with the disease. Sure, there was the requisite bad language, sex, drug use and black humor -- this is pay cable after all -- but the overall tone was a sympathetic portrait of people I grew to like.

And right there is the problem with Tara and all the other wildly dysfunctional families on cable TV these days. Each of these shows sets up doomed character, convinces viewers to like him or her, then starts the inevitable march toward that character’s destruction. I know that some level of discomfort is intentional on these shows, but I find that there is a general sense of dread about the future in their storylines. (Of course, the other common factor is great, innovative writing, which is what keeps me watching.)

I get that dysfunction is conflict and conflict sustains shows, but it can be exhausting for the viewer. Two other prime examples are Big Love and Weeds, both of which I watch and enjoy. Like Tara, these can both be described with the same simple mad-lib of a pitch:

(Name of character) is a typical suburban (mother/father) … and a (socially unacceptable profession/lifestyle/disorder).

For Big Love, fill in Bill Hedrikson and polygamist. For Weeds, Nancy Botwin and drug dealer. (Those of you who are playing at home, try this out for other favorite shows such as Breaking Bad, Nip/Tuck, Dexter, Mad Men and so on.)

All these shows start from debilitating dysfunction and there’s nowhere to go but down. Nancy will get caught eventually by some law enforcement agency unless the various Mexican drug lords she hangs with kill her first. Bill will be exposed and shunned by an unforgiving public unless the polygamist cult leaders he’s pissed off kill him first. Tara will go back down the rabbit hole and nobody really knows who will come back out. And in each case there is a whole cast of supporting family members that are going to go down hard with them.

(For the record, the main reason that I haven’t picked up well-regarded shows like Dexter and Breaking Bad is that my quota is filled for getting invested in characters I know are going down in flames.)

These shows are perfect for cable where the seasons are shorter, typically 13 episodes rather than 22. So, even though the viewer has been watching for two seasons, the writers have only had to come up with the same number of plots and twists as a single network season. For shows like Weeds and Tara that are only half-hours, four seasons equals the time commitment of a single network year. This is crucial for sustaining these premises which would flame out if so many episodes had to be produced that quickly. You can really only take these shows in small highly combustible bursts.

This is all The Sopranos fault. It is the original dysfunctional cable family that all the others are modeled after. (The key mad-lib terms for those who don’t already know -- Tony Soprano and mob boss.)

Maybe that’s why the end of The Sopranos was actually brilliant. The cut to black at the close of the final episode was seen by many as a cop-out. However, maybe it was just an admission that in the real world these extreme characters would either meet tragic or unredeemable ends, and the audience does not really want to see that. That leaves the ambiguous series end as the only believable way to let the character live on as the dysfunctional companion the audience has grown to love.

Back to United States of Tara. The beginning of season two has made it clear that her disorder will continue to slowly tear the family apart. The brief period of recovery that closed out season one has ended. Tara’s personalities are stronger than ever. And this is going to put unbearable strain on all the supporting cast. There is hope, however. At least in this show, there is a possibility of controlling the disorder and having a somewhat normal life. Imagine that. A family-based show with hope for a happy ending.

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