I don’t usually recommend television shows since I think my effusive commentary tends to speak for itself, but if you’re not watching The United States of Tara, you’re missing out. If you’re unfamiliar with the series, the stakes of the traditional family melodrama are heightened through Toni Collete’s portrayal of Tara Gregson, the wry matriarch with Dissociative Identity Disorder. A plethora of well-developed and natural characters follow, including Tara’s landscaper husband Max, precocious daughter Kate, pregnant and flaky sister Charmaine, and numerous others. The most interesting characters, however, are those that Tara has unconsciously created. Tara’s alters, ranging from the stereotypical 50s housewife to the gun-toting, motorcycle-riding womanizer, and even the imagined psychiatrist Shoshana Schoenbaum, constantly attempt to inhabit her body. As Tara struggles to construct an identity that is hers alone, the alters appear to remind her that they will always define her sense of self.
On The United States of Tara, there are no wasted moments. Every scene contributes some crucial element to the plot, even though dialogue is rarely expository. This means Tara and Charmaine can have a conversation about the abuse they suffered as children, but without explaining the situation in lurid detail. Characters talk the way normal people talk: quickly, emotionally, and frequently about themselves. Dialogue enhances relationships, not story; story unfolds through the everyday scenarios that characters experience. There are no extended dramatic monologues in which characters disembowel their emotions in front of an eager and complicit audience. There are only conversations: serious conversations, hilarious conversations, and sincere conversations.
If friends have seen Juno and Jennifer’s Body, but they doubt the competency or the immediacy of Diablo Cody’s writing, I always direct them to The United States of Tara. Cody’s strength is not the contained plot with the requisite denouement by the end of the second hour, rather it is the complicated, sprawling narratives that mimic the complexities of human experience. Tara has a controversial disorder that affects a minute number of people, and whose existence is doubted by some psychology professionals (as next week’s preview suggests, we’ll see this with Tara’s Abnormal Psychology professor), but her alters never dominate the show. We keep watching because we want to see a stranger version of our friends, our communities, and ourselves.
If there is a flaw with the series, it’s likely found in the unusual length of episodes. Each episode runs about 27 or 28 minutes, longer than the standard 22 minute sitcom, but shorter than a 45-47 minute drama. It feels as if there’s enough material for an hour-long program with commercials, but if an extra 20 minutes were tacked on each week, The United States of Tara might lose its characteristic sense of urgency that is so poignant now. Surely I can wait another week for more. Stay tuned!