In Memoriam: The United States of Tara (2009-2011)

Alter Alice in her funereal garb and pearls

Television has been making me depressed lately.

This week is the conclusion of the three to four-week period of the network season finales. This means that my favorite shows like Community and 30 Rock won’t be back on until the fall.

The season finale period also coincides with the big reveal of fall schedules from all the major networks. If shows don’t get scheduled, they get cancelled, which brings me to my next point, and the source of most of my televisual misery:

Last week Showtime announced that it would be cancelling The United States of Tara due to chronically low ratings. In an industry where a full season television show is very expensive to produce, and revenue is primarily generated through advertising, major corporations won’t pay for ad space on a show with an apparently paltry audience of 400,000 viewers for one episode. So yeah, I get it, but it doesn’t make it sting any less. Here was a great show that had grown significantly over its first two seasons, but no one was watching. Perhaps the Showtime execs love Tara, but if it’s not bringing in enough viewers to justify its undoubtedly high production costs, and consequently enough advertisers, then it’s gotta go.

In effect we have a system that rewards financial success over artistry, but in order to execute an artistic vision, the creative forces behind a show need to borrow daddy’s credit card, which is wielded by the executive producers and the network’s accounting department. But understanding the factors that influence renewal and cancellation do little to assuage the mild trauma of losing one of the few truly great shows on television.

So what’s next for Tara? Two equally unlikely scenarios emerge: fans stage a letter-writing campaign urging Showtime to reconsider and air a fourth conclusive season, or another network picks up a phenomenal show with floundering ratings. Neither event is probable, so it seems more productive to consider the future for shows that share similarities to Tara.

What aspect of the The United States of Tara is causing audiences to stop watching, or to never watch at all? Is it a shoddy promotional campaign? Perhaps viewers shy from Diablo Cody’s recognizable brand of covert grrl power and incisive dialogue? Or maybe no one wants to watch a show that’s essentially about a mother with mental illness?

I can posit numerous reasons why people didn’t watch Tara, but these premature cancellations are often inexplicable. Sometimes wonderful shows run for two seasons (Pushing Daisies, 2007-2009, Dead Like Me, 2003-2004–another quality offering from Showtime which, much like its main character, suffered an untimely demise) and terrible shows run for eight (Two and a Half Men, 2003-2011 with Ashton Kutcher recently signed on for the next season. No comment.). Networks have invested millions in trying to gauge what will elicit the most positive response from viewers.

I’m sad about Tara‘s cancellation, but pragmatic about the inner workings of the television industry. Diablo Cody is a talented writer in this medium, and I have no doubt that once the initial shock of cancellation fades, she will find her way to interesting new projects. Which, like all good television programs, will inevitably be cancelled as well. Stay tuned.


6 Responses to In Memoriam: The United States of Tara (2009-2011)

  1. Robert Bean says:

    There are multiple campaigns going on to save Tara. Here are two successful petitions:

    And here’s a Facebook campaign with close to 4,000 likes in less than a week of the news of it’s cancelation:

    DIRECTV has picked up the canceled FX drama Damages starring Glenn Close and the NBC axed Friday Night Lights.

    TNT picked up Southland after NBC dropped it.

    The news of United States of Tars being canceled is heartbreaking, but there’s still hope. The show won two Emmys and a Golden Globe in its first season alone. In spite of the low ratings, you’d be surprised how many networks would kill for that kind of buzz. On a network that would actually promote the show, it could be a hit again. Thousands and thousands of people have expressed their disappointment this week and the show doesn’t end for another month. I bet most of it’s fans don’t even know that it’s been canceled. By this time next month I wouldn’t be surprised if United States of Tara continues in one way or another. Like I’ve been saying for days now, if Showtime cancels Tara, I will cancel Showtime. And so will thousands and thousands of other paying subscribers.

    • telerevision says:

      I sincerely hope that another network does pick up Tara, if only for a final fourth season. I tend to think this is unlikely only because the show began on Showtime. From what I’ve seen, most of the shows that get cut from network TV are then picked up by premium channels, like your examples of Friday Night Lights and Southland above.

      I also think that the subject matter of Tara may come off as distasteful to some viewers. It’s just not as easy a sell as a football drama in an all-American town like Friday Night Lights. Personally I think the distinctive way The United States of Tara deals with the very traditional subject of so-called hysteria in women is really quite stunning, but its intense portrayal of this subject (especially because it’s depicted in such a novel way) may also be its death sentence.

  2. Jay Smithe says:

    Who cares what Toni Collette or Diablo Cody does next? I don’t watch shows based on who acts in them or who produced or directed or whatever Cody did on the show,
    US of Tara was a great show, until everyone abandons her when she needs them most and they let all tara’s alters get killed; and then they leave the show with absolutely no closure whatsoever. The shows that i actually like are few and far between, I cannot stand getting invested in a show only to have it canceled, after they purposely left the end open for the next season.
    The fact that a crappy show, two and a half men, gets enough viewers to last 8 years, and a great show, united states of tara, gets only 3, shows is proof positive that the majority of people are low brow morons.

    • telerevision says:

      Um, why do you think Tara was such a great show? I would hazard a guess that it’s because of the writers, actors, producers, and directors.

      Do you really think that the shows you like just emerge out of thin air? They certainly don’t, and it’s because a number of talented people believe that they are working on something with potential.

  3. kenya says:

    It was a sad blow for me,with the demise of such a brilliant an original show. As it is the good shows get the axe an the crap keeps on going. I will miss the Gregsons,an T,Alice,Buck,Gimme an Chicken,an of coarse shoshanna!

  4. Linda krefft says:

    I hate showtime for canceling United States of Tara!

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