This clip comes from Monday night’s episode of The United States of Tara, which I did not manage to watch until this morning. This show is worth the wait, and I sincerely hope that this clip falls under fair use guidelines because I think it’s indicative of the construction and the style of the entire series.
This is the first time I’ve been moved to pull an actual clip from a recent television program, and there are several reasons why I think The United States of Tara should be watched and discussed the same way we approach a show like Mad Men or Breaking Bad.
If you watch the clip, you’ll notice that the titular role is an incredibly demanding one. Toni Collette doesn’t play one character; she plays seven: this includes Tara, Buck, Alice, T, and Shoshana at the table, and Gimme and Chicken below it. Watch their individual mannerisms and idiosyncratic behavior in this scene. Every character is distinctly different, and each has a complicated and personal history. They’re not simply two-dimensional fragments of the real Tara Gregson, rather they are independent, fully realized characters.
The United States of Tara is characterized by a riveting intensity in its depiction of multiple characters that happen to reside in a single body. The engaging quality of this deep examination can be attributed to two factors. Toni Collette’s acting is unparalleled by any other actor currently working in television. She embodies separate identities for some very disparate characters, while still maintaining connections between them. And she does it all in an American accent, a notable feat since I’ve often heard other actors discuss the difficulty of swearing convincingly in a foreign accent or language.
The second factor that determines the impressive depth of character we’ve come to expect from The United States of Tara is the strength of Diablo Cody’s writing. I know Cody is often accused of writing dialogue that sounds exactly the same for each character, but this attitude is completely wrong. Maybe some people don’t like that ALL of Cody’s characters can articulate themselves in funny, memorable, or clever ways, but they can suck it (Sorry Mom!). This isn’t reality, it’s television. We watch television, and most other forms of entertainment, to see a better, more interesting version of our own lives. Don’t believe me? Ask the ancient Greeks what they think about the relationship between art and life. It’s not a fact, but it’s pretty well-accepted that this is the way we like things: weird, but not too weird. Unfamiliar, but not so distant that we can’t relate.
I had mixed feelings about Cody’s first film (Juno, 2007) mostly because I felt the characters weren’t deep enough. If you’re going to indulge in some sassy, rapid-fire dialogue, then it still needs to be true to the needs and the desires of your characters. With Juno, I felt as though the hypercurrent dialogue wasn’t specifically tailored to the particular tendencies of each character. The dialogue was flawed and unspecific because the characters were not clearly defined. Now that Cody has matured considerably as a writer, her characters are the story. As a result, their banter appears charming and natural, instead of overly quirky and forced.
When Tara accosts the alters in a boardroom meeting, we accept her announcement, “I am dissolving the United States of Tara and proclaiming myself king,” because she is the kind of person who would say this to her husband, her children, or her sister, even if only in jest. The line is perfect because it expresses exactly how Tara feels in a language that only the assertive, exasperated Tara would use. Stay tuned!