“I’m not your town”: Season 1 of United States of Tara

Trouble seems to find the Gregsons (Max, Tara, Marshall, and Kate) usually thanks to Tara's alters (image courtesy of diablocodyfan.wordpress.com)

Warning: this post may contain spoilers – I’ve tried my best not to give away too much.

Last month I finished up Season One of Showtime’s United States of Tara.  I took advantage of the free first episode that streamed on Netflix and Showtime’s own site, but had to wait until the season was released on DVD to watch the entire thing. Created by Diablo Cody (who wrote the scripts for Juno and Jennifer’s Body) the show revolves around Tara Gregson (Toni Collette: The Sixth Sense and Muriel’s Wedding) – an artist, wife, and mother of two – who has dissociative identity disorder, in which alternate identities inhabit her body and appear from time to time. At the start of Season One we learn that Tara had been controlling her disorder by medicating herself, but that she has now decided to get off her meds and work on integrating the personalities with her daily life and the life of her husband, Max (John Corbett from Sex and the City), and two teenage kids, Kate (Brie Larson) and Marshall (Keir Gilchrist).

Season One never explains why or how Tara developed dissociative identity disorder (a point I’ll return to later on), but it’s clear from the first episode that stress is a key factor in determining if and when an alter will appear. In that first episode we see Tara confessing to a digital video camera that she is upset and anxious after finding morning-after pills in her daughter’s backpack. In front of Tara’s camera – and the show’s camera – we see something come over Tara and her body physically contort and twist. In a matter of seconds one of Tara’s alters – in this case “T” – appears and takes over.

Meet Tara's alters, T the teenager, Buck the Vietnam veteran, and Alice the 1950s housewife (image courtesy of Eonline)

Tara’s primary alters consist of T – a rebellious teenager with a horny streak, Alice – a 1950s housewife and homemaker, and Buck – a hyper-masculine Vietnam veteran who incidentally explains his physical lack of a penis (since he “occupies” Tara’s body and Tara is cisgender female) by stating that “it” was shot off in “’Nam.” Collette gives an amazing performance as Tara and her alters – often switching from one to another in the same episode, even in the same scene. It’s easy to see why Collette scooped up the Emmy and Golden Globe for Best Comedic Performance in a Television Series given that she must pass as each of the characters. In an interview with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross – Collette discusses approaching each character, each alter, as a fully developed person. Collette sells Tara’s multiple personality disorder (which is key), embodying each of the alter’s individual quirks and mannerisms so you believe that (Collette as) T really is a 15-year-old, and that Buck has that macho swagger because he’s truly seen some shit. Her performances (plural) are brilliant and engaging. Below is the credit sequence which does a great job of setting up the show and showcasing Tara’s alters and their distinct personalities.

In terms of the overall show, I agree with the AV Club’s assessment that the first Season of USOT starts off a little shaky. If any of you were annoyed by the precociousness and quirkiness of Juno, be prepared for that same characterization and dialogue in the first half of the show. The first five or so episodes focus on introducing each of the alters and showing off their unique characteristics. However, this turns into one giant quipfest fast, in which each alter is given easily digestible and (sometimes) funny one liners, one liners that are ultimately empty and do little to propel the plot or character development. Cody and writers pack the first half of the season with as many quirks and quips as possible, prompting Troy Patterson, from Slate, to list the one liners that annoyed him:

“So, here, we get, “Sometimes you make me feel like I’m living in a Lifetime lady-tampon movie”; “That dude is such a waste of hair product”; “I’ve been diggin’ around your closest for an hour, and I still can’t fuckin’ get to Narnia”; “cluck-cluck” (as a synonym for fried chicken); “Sudoku” (as a racial slur); “Jell-O Pudding is for the children” (said in Bill Cosby’s voice); and—this is T explaining how Tara found out that her daughter took a morning-after pill—”She went all CSI in that pubic thatch you call a backpack.” For whatever reason, Cody has front-loaded her scripts with this stuff—is she trying to alienate the audience?”

In case you want more Diablo Cody dialogue, there’s a whole site devoted to character quotes from USOT. What saves the show from spiraling into one giant quote-athon is that about halfway through Season One, USOT returns to the original premise: how Tara’s disorder affects her life and her family. Once USOT makes it past the midway hump and delves beyond the quirkiness of Tara’s alters, the show addresses the fragility of family dynamics and how this family remains intact despite unusual circumstances.

An image of Charmaine and Tara (image courtesy of nj.com)

This includes examining Tara’s relationship with her younger sister, Charmaine (Rosemarie DeWitt from Rachel Getting Married and poorly written in Season One of Mad Men). Charmaine acts as the skeptic in the family, constantly trying to snap Tara out of her “so-called” (according to Charmaine) disorder, and claiming that Tara’s “act” is a cry for attention. Some of the show’s most dramatic moments are the result of Tara and Charmaine’s sibling rivalry and long-held grudges against one another. However, as shown in the image above, USOT also casts light on sisterly love and support.

Marshall is one of my favorite characters on the show (image courtesy of tvfanatic)

One of my favorite characters from the show is Marshall, Tara’s and Max’s teenage son, who happens to be homosexual. He also happens to want to be a director, an aspiration that allows Cody and the show’s writers to reference classical Hollywood directors and stars, and iconic films from Hollywood’s Golden Age. In USOT Marshall is the most sensitive and caring character, attempting to save face when one of his mom’s alters embarrasses him at a school function, but also trying to shield his mom from the shame she feels with regards to her disorder. Marshall is so loyal to Tara – who is also highly supportive of him and his sexual identity – that when T betrays Marshall, by making out with his crush (Andrew Lawrence), Marshall unleashes a melodramatic furry worthy of Bette Davis.

Tara and Kate during a rare bonding moment on the show (image courtesy of nj.com)

This all brings me to my greatest disappointment in the show – the lack of character development in relation to Kate, Tara’s and Max’s 15-year-old daughter. While I had issues with Juno, I appreciated Cody’s attempt to portray girls’ lives as more messy than than romantic (umm Last Song), more incidental and ironic than over-the-top dramatic and fatalistic (ummm Twilight). I hoped that Cody would fine tune some of these same themes and apply them to Kate on USOT. However, in my opinion Kate is one of the least developed characters on the show. She is represented as a bit precocious and a “wise beyond her years” type who rebels against her parents (and arguably reacts to Tara’s disorder) by wearing streaks in her hair, cussing, and hooking up with boys. Now I don’t have a problem with how Kate’s rebellion plays out per se, but over the course of Season One it reads so obvious and boring. While Marshall explores his homosexuality and pursues his crush by joining – of all things – a Christian fundamentalist youth group that puts on a Christian horror house, Kate rebels by getting a job (which is interesting) and hooking up with her older dweebie (and later on, obsessive) manager (which is less interesting).

Kate’s predilection for bad boys – or the wrong boys – is established in the first episode of the show, in which we see her dating some Emo punkish boy from school who is physically rough with her. What’s sad is that Kate’s character hardly develops over the course of Season One, and towards the end of the Season, when Kate and Tara take off for a one-night trip, Kate tries to hook up with some business professional types staying at the same hotel for a convention – essentially repeating what she’s done for the length of the show over and over again, just with different guys. Though we can pathologize Kate’s actions, we rarely glimpse her viewpoint or understand her take on her family situation or her relationship with her mom. Moreover, Kate seems to exist in a world in which she has no friends. While Marshall has Petula to confide in, Kate is never shown hanging out with friends or confiding in friends. As a result we never see any bit of her that isn’t a put on or a performance – either acting out in front of her family (telling Alice for instance that she’s a girl who likes to “suck and fuck”) or acting out for male attention (that is either technically illegal – umm statutory rape with the business professional – or attention that backfires – as in the case with her manager). I’m hoping that in Season 2 – which began on March 22 – Kate is given space on-screen to develop as a nuanced and complex character.

Overall, I enjoyed how Season One of USOT played with the idea of multiple personality types and traits existing in one person. While one reading of the show explains Tara’s disorder as the result of some unknown trauma, I would argue that the show also posits that conventional gender roles – and the limitations of traditional femininity – disallow women to embrace a spectrum of roles, emotions, and even sexual desires and gender identities (after all Buck is male and likes the ladies . . . oh and heterosexual male-targeted porn). Furthermore, I was happy with the fact that Tara’s disorder is not explained away by the end of Season One, despite Max’s best efforts to uncover Tara’s past in the hopes of “curing” her. Tara connects Max’s desire to cure her to Western films, John Wayne, and macho heterosexist notions of masculinity. Refusing to be rescued or explained away, Tara tells Max “I’m not your town,” and asserts her authority and agency in coping with and understanding her disorder on her own terms and at her comfort level. Despite all the quirkiness packed in the first half of United States of Tara, the dysfunction of this family is relatable and highly entertaining.

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~ by actyourage09 on April 6, 2010.

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