TV

United States of Tara

Kirsten Markson

Tara (Toni Collette) and her relatives try to fit in and never quite make it, but find love and support along the way, tempered by the occasional humiliation.


United States of Tara

Airtime: Sundays, 10pm ET
Cast: Toni Collette, John Corbett, Keir Gilchrist, Brie Larson, Rosemarie DeWitt
MPAA rating: N/A
Subtitle: Series Premiere
Network: Showtime
US release date: 2009-01-18
Website
Trailer
Amazon

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.

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Music

Mike Stern: Trip

Photo: Sandrine Lee (Concord Music Group)

Mike Stern has fallen. Trip shows that he can get back up just fine.


Mike Stern

Trip

Label: Heads Up
US Release Date: 2017-09-08
UK Release Date: 2017-09-08
Label website
Artist website
Amazon
iTunes

Guitarist Mike Stern suffered from a big owie last year. It seems that, while trying to cross a street in Manhattan, he tripped and fell, breaking both of his shoulders in the process. He underwent surgery and reports that "I still have to use glue so I can hold a guitar pick." While you're busy trying to figure out just how a jazz-fusion guitarist needs glue to hold a pick, keep in mind Stern is an embodiment of a working musician, and his chosen genre of expertise is famous for its pay-to-play, sink-or-swim business model. Such a setback can really eat into one's career. Gigs need to be canceled, which sometimes leads to venues blacklisting you in the future. And in a world where most people listen to their music via streaming services, gigging may be your only reliable source of income. Thankfully, Mike Stern, who was 63 at the time of his injury, has made a full recovery and is back to work with an impressive array of professional help. His new album is ironically named Trip. Apart from the title,

Trip makes it sound like nothing ever happened to Stern. At all. In the same way that John McLaughlin and his current Fourth Dimension band sound like a bunch of barnstormers who haven't hit 40 yet, the powerful performance of Stern and his colleagues coupled with the high quality of the material belie both age and medical condition. Now I'm aware that our very own Steven Spoerl did not care for the writing on Mike Stern's 2012 All Over the Place, but there's no way I can sling the same criticism at Trip. The opening title track alone is enough to nullify that. Stern plays the melody in unison with saxophonist Bob Franceschini, and it's all over the place. The song slinks into a B section where the chords shift from a minor vi to a major IV, and again, Stern and Franceschini drive an even meaner melody down the scale with plenty of sharply punctuated intervals. This guy fell, broke his shoulders, and now needs glue to hold a pick? Are we all sure he wasn't just replaced with Steve Austin?

Another number that, to me, offsets any concerns about the able-bodiness or strength of the material is a spunky one named "Watchacallit". This time, the B section brims with even more tension with Franceschini flying high and bassist Tom Kennedy doing little divebombs at the start of each bar. When it's all put together, it's truly a moment for you to crank your listening device of choice (in the past, we would say "stereo" right about here). But that's just two songs. There's a total of 11, spanning an hour and six minutes. Stern doesn't use every bar of every number to punch us in the gut. He still goes for the smooth bop ("Emelia"), the funky intersection of Miles Davis and Funkadelic ("Screws"), and the soothing ballad ("I Believe in You" and "Gone").

No review of Trip would be complete without mentioning the musical pedigree of Mike Stern's friends. When it comes to drummers, he managed to net Dennis Chambers, Lenny White, and Will Calhoun (yes, that Will Calhoun). Those names alone give you a money-back guarantee that the rhythm section will never, ever falter. But just to be sure, Stern summons Victor Wooten to play bass. Top shelf names like Randy Brecker and Bill Evans, in addition to Franceschini, provide Trip with soulful wind. Pianist Jim Beard pulls double duty as the session pianist. Normally, I'd wrap this up by saying that Mike Stern is under the process of pulling himself up by his bootstraps and dusting himself off after a major boo-boo. But after listening to

Trip over and over again, I'm convinced that he's beyond that. The straps are up, and the dust has cleared. He's back, playing and composing just as well as he ever did. Better than he did before the accident, perhaps? You can be the judge of that meaningless hairsplitting exercise because Trip is worth the journey no matter where your expectations may lie.

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