I’m of two minds when it comes to Showtime’s latest original drama, The United States of Tara. And no, that’s not a wink at the protagonist’s multiple personality disorder, more accurately termed dissociative identity disorder (DID).
On one hand, it’s a relief to see that the disorder isn’t cavalierly exploited just to get laughs or allow star Toni Collette to ham it up in outrageous costumes. On the other hand, it’s surprising just how matter-of-factly other characters accept her disorder, almost as if they’re enabling her. This may not be the case, but there’s a certain adjustment period required since most viewers will come in with limited knowledge about the subject.
Tara Gregson (Collette) is a loving suburban housewife who has taken herself off medication so she can deal with her DID head-on. This means that every now and then her consciousness gets bypassed when one of her other identities emerges. These alter egos, or "alters," include the thong-wearing teenager T, trucker hat-wearing Vietnam vet Buck and 50s-era perfect housewife Alice.
Tara’s family — husband Max (Corbett), daughter Kate (Brie Larson) and son Marshall (Keir Gilchrist) — are so supportive, it’s kind of a shock. They approach this unusual situation with everyday nonchalance: going shopping with T, bowling with Buck or expecting an elaborate breakfast from Alice.
There’s a sweetness to the whole family dynamic. Oh sure, Kate still gets embarrassed by her mom, and Max gets turned on by the female alters and can’t do anything about it, but then again there are times when certain alters bring out the best in her family.
This is where things get pretty complicated. Is the Gregson family’s acceptance of the alters helping Tara discover the root of her disorder or are they strengthening Tara’s dependence on the alters? This disorder usually stems from some childhood mistreatment and uses the various identities to cope with life’s stresses, which is why Tara can be triggered at any time.
There’s a lot going on in the show. Tara can’t hold down a job as an interior designer because the alters get in the way. Tara’s sister Charmaine (Rosemarie Dewitt) is super-competitive and often refuses to even acknowledge the disorder. Kate takes refuge from her family with a dead-end job at a local restaurant. Marshall is dealing with an inconvenient crush at school.
And to top it off, Alice seems the most insidious of the alters. She schemes to get pregnant (even though Tara doesn’t want to have more kids) by seducing Max, harbors a not-so-secret drinking problem and claims that she plans on being there permanently in the future — which would mean doing away with Tara’s consciousness. Could there be an alter ego mutiny in the works?
Collette’s acting chops have already been proven, and she tackles the multiple roles admirably. There are no uncanny physical transformations: Collette is easily identifiable in every guise. What she does bring, however, is a subtlety of expression that rarely crosses from one alter to the next. It’s difficult to say if her take on T is uncomfortable to watch because she falls short in her performance though or just because any 30-something woman acting like a teenager isn’t going to be convincing.
Despite the serious and respectful approach, however, the show has its sparks of humor. "Juno" Oscar winner Diablo Cody is the creative force behind the project after all, thanks to fellow executive producer Steven Spielberg who brought her on for her unique take on serious subjects.
Naturally, the laughs are of the subversive sort, but it’s always in the background, never showy. So if you’re caught up in the action, you may not notice Kate’s boyfriend is unduly obsessed with Japan, a girl trying out for the musical by singing "I’m Telling You" badly or that Buck offers to show Max some porn that features amputees.
Overall, because of the psychiatric focus of the show, that’s where the action is. The drama and the triumphs aren’t big or spectacular, but have to do with the everyday interactions for Tara. Maybe that’s why, despite the show’s unusual premise, it feels the most normal and relatable of Showtime’s original offerings.
What did you think of the show?