The United States of Tara just wrapped up its second season, but it’s still something of an unknown this side of the Atlantic. It’s written by Juno creator Diablo Cody, but don’t let that put you off. It is by far one of the most original shows on television. It also eschews typical suburban California neighborhoods and the like, settling instead in a small Kansas town. Toni Collette stars as Tara Gregson, an artist, mother, wife, teen, old-school housewife, Vietnam War veteran… Tara suffers from dissociative identity disorder, formally known as multiple personality disorder, a condition brought on by stress. Our protagonist tries to live a normal life with her laid-back and patient husband Max (played by John Corbett), her outspoken teenage daughter Kate, and her sensitive and sexually confused son, Marshall. Her younger sister, Charmaine, lives near her and often feels overshadowed by Tara’s illness.
It would have been easy to exploit dissociative identity disorder and turn this show into a cheeky comedy. Instead, DID is revealed to be an extremely difficult disorder to live with, especially since Tara has no memory of transitioning or what she does in that state, and also how much her family struggles to live with it. There is still a lot of dark humor in the dialogues, without which the show would be a bit depressing.
Their personalities include T, a loud and boisterous teenager; Alice, a 1950s-style housewife, and Buck, the only male personality, who claims his penis was blown off in Vietnam. As the series progresses, more personalities appear, such as Gimme, a wild, animalistic creature.
Tara’s mental illness is so unpredictable that her children have had to take responsibility for themselves from an early age, and parenting often takes a backseat as one of Tara’s personalities disrupts the household. Kate and Marshall are mature beyond their years and clearly affected by their circumstances. Kate is introduced as a defiant teenager whose rebellion is encouraged by T, but Alice discourages her, and her sharp wit is indicative of her untapped intelligence. Marshall, who is fourteen at the beginning of the series, has already spoken to his parents about him, but experiments with a girl in the second series. He is a vulnerable soul, who spends time in his room listening to Billie Holiday, and likes Alice better out of her mother’s alternate personalities, possibly because she is the more motherly of hers. Kate and Marshall are close and often confide in each other. Despite their maturity, they still have moments of being naive and moments where they desperately need their mother, which can be heartbreaking to watch.
Max is the supportive and fiercely protective husband who holds the family together. As the patriarch of the family, his children show him more respect than his mentally ill mother. However, Max is often distracted by the condition of his wife, and as a result, the children get away with it. Kate and Marshall sometimes resent their abnormal home life, which can lead to fights, but they mostly find their own ways to vent. Charmaine is cast as the jealous little sister, who believes that Tara’s DID is attention-seeking behavior, but as the series develops, she grows closer to her sister.
Tara is constantly trying to find answers to her incomplete life, as large chunks have been lost in the transition to ‘alternates’. Details of her childhood remain obscure and her parents are unwilling to divulge too much information. She therefore, she is always looking for reasons why she developed the disorder and why certain personalities emerged. Tara and Max deal with various issues as a result of her condition, including infidelity, childhood trauma, and even social services calling to see if she’s fit to care for her children.
Alters are, however, at first hyperbolized versions of common stereotypes. T, the wild teenager, is so extreme that she can feel a bit forced, and her actions are sometimes more childish than adolescent. Alice, the perfect housewife, is so impeccably presented and coiffed that she looks like a cartoon character. Buck, the veteran redneck, is your typical beer-guzzling, gun-toting hick, but he lacks the grace to accept Marshall’s sexuality. The characters are very exaggerated, but I think they need to be, otherwise it would be hard to tell Tara from her alters. The hyperbole eventually dies down as we get to know Tara and her personalities, which makes it more believable. However, it’s hard to pin down which demographic it’s aimed at, as teens face many of the show’s problems.
The United States of Tara is an entertaining and unusual show that is full of surprises and witty dialogue. It’s not for everyone as there’s a lot to take in, but it’s worth it if you’re willing to be patient. It paints a new picture of the dysfunctional family and sheds light on mental illness. If you think you can handle it, check it out.