On top of the offerings of the traditional networks, the number of offerings of “original series” from cable/satellite channels has continued to grow. None of us – or, at most, few of us – has the time or inclination to see them all. Among the ones I ignored during its original run (2009 - 2011) was the SHO series The United States of Tara even though it was produced by Steven Spielberg and created by Diablo Cody, the former exotic dancer who is one of the most interesting new screenwriters of the past decade. (See my earlier blog on her full-length movies The Devil Is in the Details.) The brief descriptions of the TV episodes provided by Dish when I was channel-surfing at that time left me with the impression the series was some kind of teen-oriented comedy, so I surfed on past it. My impression was mistaken. Relying on Cody’s writing and on the presence of award-winning actress Brie Larson, I recently gave the first episode of Season 1 a belated chance. The experiment developed into an attenuated binge-watch (stretched over a couple weeks) of all three seasons.
Tara Gregson (Toni Colette) is a 35-year-old artist, wife, and mother of two who has what with admirable clarity was once called multiple personality disorder; today, in line with the modern penchant for obfuscatory euphemism, it is called dissociative identity disorder (DID). She and her family live in Overland Park, Kansas, which is about as middle-America as it is possible to get. But Noman Rockwell no longer resides in Kansas, any more than he does in Long Island or Miami or the East Bay.
Tara, we learn in the first episode, deliberately and with the support of her husband Max (John Corbett) has gone off her medications, which had made her dazed and foggy. They know full well that without medication her “alters” (other personalities) will re-emerge, but surmise that the only way to discover the root cause of her mental illness is to let them. DID typically stems from some severe trauma that a person escapes facing by becoming another person – or other people. Tara’s alters include a 15-year-old wild child, a prim 1950s-style housewife, and a beer-drinking gun-toting guy named Buck who successfully picks up chicks. New alters emerge during the course of the series including a 5-year-old and a New York psychiatrist. None seems actually dangerous at first, though there are some fidelity issues, but as Tara gets closer to the truth this changes.
Meanwhile Tara’s family has all the usual difficulties families face. Her teen daughter Kate (Brie Larson) makes questionable decisions about life, school, work, romance, and the use of the internet. Tara’s son Marshall (Keir Gilchrist) struggles with his sexual identity. Tara’s sister reveals she is pregnant by someone other than her fiancé. Tara’s husband Max seems to be the steady rock, but he isn’t. Max does love his wife, but is deeply frustrated by the situation and occasionally his suppressed rage surfaces and misdirects. We eventually learn that his mother (…calling Dr. Freud…) has mental problems too: she’s a hoarder who celebrates Christmas year-round. It doesn’t help that Max’s landscaping business is losing customers to cheap competition. Tara’s “transitions” rarely help in any situation.
Yet, oddly enough, for all the craziness there is a sense in which the Gregsons are fit portrait material for Mr. Rockwell. Max and Tara are the married biological parents of their children whom they have raised, and divorce doesn’t appear to be a prospect. That is very much the minority experience of American children in the 21st century; most spend at least some of their first 18 years with a single parent or with a stepparent.
The idea of a lead character with DID initially might have been a contrivance to attract ratings, but the execution works on more than just a superficial level. We all have different faces we show to the world in different circumstances – and we don’t always show the appropriate one. We all have unresolved problems, difficult families, faithless friends, financial stresses, and complicated (often unhealthy) motivations. Life throws an endless stream of problems our way. We cope as best we can and try not to forget who we are.
Nothing in the show is played especially for laughs, yet it is often darkly funny. Not your average comedy: Thumbs up.