The United States of Tara, Showtime’s kooky TV mashup, is quite similar to what we’d have if Sally Field in Sybil (NBC’s 1976 two-parter) joined the Botwin family from Weeds.
It’s a little bit crazy, a little bit rock ‘n roll.
Were Tara to go the way of more tawdry, middlebrow media –– The OC, The Hills –– with an appropriated pop-anthem for its theme song, none would be more appropriate than Alanis Morissette’s rendition of “Bitch.” When Morissette sings: “I’m a bitch, I’m a lover, I’m a child, I’m a mother / I’m a sinner, I’m a saint, I do not feel ashamed”, she offers up a catchy catalog of alternate identities, a list prescient of the characters and convolutions of this decades-later drama.
The show is carried by the actress Toni Collette, who plays “Tara,” a Kansas City mother and wife with a serious case of Dissociative Identity Disorder. That said, she is also “T,” a sex-minded teenage troublemaker; “Buck,” a lecherous Vietnam-vet; “Alice,” a prim and proper model of Stepfordesque matriarchy; “Gimme,” an Id-indulgent wild-thing; “Shoshana Schoenbaum,” a stuck-in-the-Seventies self-analyzing psychoanalyst; and “Chicken,” a reverie to the five-year-old Tara of yore. These characters, Tara’s “alters,” allow Toni Collette to showcase her double –– sextuple? –– jointedness as an actor.
They are young and old, male and female, friendly and feral. They go by familiar names and made-up monikers, and only one of them has a last name. They are, collectively, the best part of this program: indecent, uninhibited, shameless, fractious and funny.
That is not to say that “Tara” lacks depth, human emotion; there is plenty of that, too. But it is very subtlety shaded, sensitive, like life. Each “alters” serves a purpose: “Gimme” pees on the sofa-bed, on Tara’s sleeping father, in an obvious expression of repressed aggression; “Shoshana” sets up her private practice in the Gregson’s spare room when it is clear that Tara needs yet more psychological help –– the benefits of inpatient programs and pharmaceutical cocktails lacking longevity; and earlier this month, during the season’s final episode, five-year-old “Chicken” shows up when Tara’s sister is left at the altar –– the complexity of such painful adult emotion far beyond Tara’s capacity to comprehend. Very slowly –– very! –– fragments of insight into the reason for Tara’s curious condition are uncovered through the catalysts and context of her many “alter” transitions.
Of course, it is impossible to forecast when any of these modular-mommies will make her –– or his, (“Buck”) –– next appearance. Their timing is fortuitous; their transitions onset at random, but almost always by stress. Just about the only thing we can count on is that chaos and confusion and, sometimes, comic-relief ensue upon arrival.
If it sounds like Tara and her tribe of “alters” hog the stage, it is because they do.
Our knowledge of the Gregson children is cursory and surface-skimming at best. We see Marshall navigating high-school with burgeoning cognizance of his own homosexuality; we know that Kate is desperately attention-deprived. What is left for our interpretation is how and why they respond to this crazy family dynamic as they do; both escape into oddly extravagant fantasy lives of their own complicated creation.
Marshall snorts Adderall with his James St. James-esque boy-toy and their curiously under-explained, forty-something male companion. Concomitantly, he becomes involved in a platonic more-than-friendship with a girl at school who, to her great misfortune, reminds us far too much of Reese Witherspoon’s character in Election. Marshall may not have “alters,” but he’s got one hell of a busy love life.
And the elder Gregson, Kate, transforms, seemingly over night, into a fan-fic fantasy femme-fatale named Princess Valhalla Hawkwind. She pours two-percent into her cheerios wearing bubblegum Daisy Dukes and a Viking Helmet with a built-in Barbie wig; she zips around her Kansas City suburb on the Pepto pink Vespa she received in exchange for performing — as Princess Valhalla — lewd web-cam acts like plunking her booty shorts down onto a pristinely-iced cake or a bunch of blown-up balloons for an adoring online audience.
These are children with such a profoundly warped sense of healthy self-image — Thanks, Mom! — it is nothing short of a miracle that they haven’t yet turned to anything harder than … Adderall.
Still, seamy and salable as the adolescent story-lines are, I can’t help but think So what? Enough already. I want to see Gimme and Shoshana Schoenbaum this week! I want to see Buck! And I’m clearly not alone here; presumably nothing can get these purblind parents to notice, or pay attention to, the fact that they have teenagers in the house. Teenagers!
Unfailingly, the spotlight falls on Tara – or “Buck,” or “Gimme”, or “T,” or “Alice,” or “Chicken,” or “Shoshana Schoenbaum” – 99% of the time. It is, after all, The United States of Tara. Let us all be forewarned.