TV Talk: United States of Tara
Starring: Toni Collette, John Corbett, Rosemarie DeWitt, Brie Larson, Keir Gilchrist
Series Creator: Diablo Cody
The wife and I polished off the first two seasons of United States of Tara in the matter of a few weeks, prompting me to interrupt our regularly scheduled programming to resurrect an old feature of the blog: TV Talk, where I “talk” about something on TV in a more free-flowing, non-reviewy kind of way (well… if you read it out loud, it’s almost like talking). This talk will be spoiler-free, so if you haven’t watched the show yet, read this to find out if you should.
I originally gave Tara a shot when it debuted last year, amidst tepid reviews and the Diablo Cody backlash… and gave up after two episodes. Cody’s propensity for overwriting her dialogue to achieve maximum snarky affect just grates on me, and the first two episodes were loaded with examples of this. Add to that the offbeat premise of the series designed for maximum quirk, and I was not long for this show. My wife didn’t mind it, but I’m guessing it ended up piling up three episodes deep on our DVR, which is the signal that we’ve given up on a show.
I’d heard that the show improved as the first season went along, but only got as far as good, not great, so I was comfortable continuing to skip it. Then a few weeks ago, I was listening to TV on the Internet’s podcast on the top ten shows of the 2009-10 season. The TV on the Internet podcast is hosted by one of my favourite TV critics, Todd VanDerWerff (of the AV Club, the LA Times ShowTracker, HitFix, and others) and his wife Libby Hill, whose enthusiasm for TV balances Todd’s analysis for a fun dynamic. On the podcast, Libby (apparently, I’m on a first name basis with these two people I’ll never meet, mostly because typing VanDerWerff multiple times is too much work) listed Tara in her top ten, which wasn’t enough to convince me. Then she gave her reason: she hated season one, but the increase in quality in season two was so great that she loved it.
A show capable of turning a hater into a fan intrigued me, particularly since I was a hater. Since the entire season was available On Demand for free, I decided to dive back in. Even though Hill (yeah, I didn’t feel comfortable with the first name basis thing) said I could start with season two on Twitter (well… now that Libby and I have had a less-than-280-character conversation, maybe we ARE on a first name basis), I decided to bite the bullet and start with season one, including the first two I didn’t like. Because despite a recent article somewhat convincingly making the case that not all shows need be watched from their very beginning (particularly ones that start off shaky), I’m still a start-from-the-beginning kind of TV watcher. Plus, as a half-hour premium cable show, a season of Tara is less than six hours. I could tolerate that.
And the show did improve throughout its debut season. Or at least I grew accustomed enough to it that its flaws bothered me less. But it certainly wasn’t a great show by the end of those 12 episodes. Or even a very good show really. I think I’d go as far as “watchable”, but it was still plagued by the problems that initially turned me off of the show: the dialogue tried too hard at times and the premise too often devolved into a quirkfest.
I guess I should stop here and lay out the premise of the show for anyone who might be unfamiliar, yet likes my writing so much that they’ve continued to read around 650 words about a show they’ve clearly never heard of. Toni Collette stars as the eponymous Tara, a woman with Dissociative Identity Disorder that gives her a series of alternate personalities (or “alters”): T the slutty teenager, Buck the redneck Vietnam veteran (yes, he’s a dude), and Alice the old fashioned housewife. The series focuses on her attempts to come to terms with her past trauma that caused her DID, while her husband Max (John Corbett) and children Marshall (Keir Gilchrist) and Kate (Brie Larson) try to deal with all the craziness. Rosemarie DeWitt rounds out the cast as Tara’s self-involved younger sister Charmaine. Since the show considers itself a comedy (in the mould of other premium cable comedies that aren’t particularly funny), Tara’s mental condition is played throughout the first season for jokes, treating visits from the exaggerated stereotypes that make up her alters as times for wacky hijinks.
Thankfully, United States of Tara did indeed make the dramatic leap forward in quality in season two I was promised. It might not yet be “great”, but its certainly “very good”. More importantly, I count myself as a fan (and have checked the appropriate Facebook button to prove it). The show was able to make this leap by making one simple change: it stopped trying to be a comedy.
Sure, it always hid behind the old “dramedy” portmanteau to justify its blend of silly and serious (and to make it look more fancy while justifying its half-hour time slot), but the second season definitely focused more on the DRAM and less on the MEDY, and it was better for it. Gone was the forced whimsy, the desperate need to pack multiple references into every other line, and Collette’s exaggerated alter moments (which of course won her an Emmy, because playing four different characters in an episode of TV is as awards-baity as it gets, particularly when it’s coming from an actress crossing over from movies to television). The show always wanted to explore the dark side of Tara’s issues, but could never commit to the proper tone while trying to be the hip, sardonic show about the lady with wacky personalities. In season two, it made the commitment to treat Tara’s disorder seriously, and thus consequence and drama were introduced.
In many ways, this shift from forced irony to sincerity, and the improvement in quality that come with it, mirrors Diablo Cody’s more famous creation, Juno. The movie was annoying when it was all “honest to blog” this and “this is one doodle that can’t be un-did, Homeskillet” that. But once it gave itself over to the real emotion of the event, with Juno’s quiet confusion over what kind of girl she is or Jennifer Garner feeling the baby kick, the movie became a lot better. In many ways, this could be a lesson for my entire generation: cool it with ironic detachment every once and awhile, and your art (and life) will be all the better for it.
It’s not that Tara stopped having funny moments in season two. Much of Brie Larson’s plots were lightly comedic, and DeWitt brought humour to Charmaine’s rampant narcissism (on a side note, Charmaine’s character was probably the most rehabilitated throughout the series to date. In the pilot, she’s a hateful bitch. By season two’s finale, she’s sympathetic). But by taking the characters and their situations seriously, the comedy becomes more organic. The dialogue is still playfully adorned with Cody-style quips, it’s just not trying as hard to impress. The characters actually feel like they’re talking to each other, rather than just waiting to deliver their next overwritten zinger.
Tellingly, Tara spends all of a minute as T in the second season, supporting my theory that the showrunners (Cody and Jill Soloway) made a conscious decision to play things more straight. T was always the broadest of the alters, ill-suited for dramatic treatment, and the worst offender of Cody-esque forced dialogue. Frankly, if we never see T again, I’d be okay with it. The show needs to accept that as a comedy, it wasn’t that good or that funny. As a drama, it has the potential to be really special. (And while it’s at it, it should cut the shit and stop submitting itself as a comedy for awards. Kind of unfair to compare Collette confronting mental trauma with, say, Amy Poehler’s attempts to, you know, make us laugh. But that’s another post).
So if you were like me, and gave United States of Tara a shot, but couldn’t get past its self-satisfied early attempts at humour, or avoided it altogether figuring a show about multiple personalities written by Diablo Cody would be just as infuriatingly arch as it was in its first few episodes, I’m here to tell you that it’s time to give it another shot. If you’re impatient, you could probably dive into season two, provided you do enough homework to figure out who’s who and what’s what. But as I said, you can bang out the first season in less than six hours (the full series to date in less than twelve), so it’s probably worth the effort to get to know the characters and their world as the show figures out how to best use them. The reward is one of the better family dramas on TV; possibly the best of the new batch of half-hour dramedies the premium cable networks have been putting out of late (besting Hung, Weeds, Bored to Death, and possibly Nurse Jackie).
Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment to make this more of a “talk”.