I’ve seen some dysfunctional families on television over the years. Haven’t we all? It’s fun to laugh at someone else’s flaws. Along comes Showtime, and it’s rather hard to classify the series The United States Of Tara. This one takes dysfunction to a whole new level. Tara (Collette) suffers from multiple-personality disorder. Laughing yet? She has managed to control the problem by using medications and attending frequent therapy sessions. But the medication is sapping her creative ability. You see, Tara was once a gifted artist. She painted murals and was somewhat critically acclaimed. The meds put an end to all of that. With the blessings of her family, Tara goes off the meds, and the family grows by 7. Yes, there are 7 “alters” as she calls them inside of Tara’s body. Now they are all coming out to play.
The first thing you have to understand about this show is who the alters happen to be. We learn over time that they were constructed by Tara’s mind to protect her from a traumatic moment in her life. Tara can’t remember the event, but from time to time, the alters offer up little clues to what might have taken place. She is totally aware of the alters and their personalities. The family has developed some protection techniques of their own. Husband Max (Corbett) is not allowed to have sex with the alters. They’ve decided that would be cheating. How about just f***ed up? The kids are to treat the alters as they are, not as Mom. I’ll introduce you to the “real” people later. Here are Tara’s alters:
“T”: No relation to Mr. T. T is a 16-year-old girl with the maturity and good sense that goes along with it. She is quite frisky and flirts with anything she can get her arms around, including Max. She smokes. She has bonded somewhat with Tara’s teenage daughter, and the two are prone to trouble. She is often exiled to a backyard shed to keep her from trying to seduce Max. They family has installed outside stereo speakers to drown out her rants and screams.
Buck: Buck is the only male alter living in Tara’s head. He’s a chain-smoking, booze-drinking, gun-totin’, cussing Vietnam vet with a lot of damage from the war. He’s just as sex starved as T, except he’s going after the women. He feels up Tara’s own daughter and sister. He’s a redneck with a serious violent streak. He wears a ball cap and hunting vest.
Alice: Alice is the model 1950’s housewife. She wears too much makeup, dresses and acts modestly, and spends a lot of time cooking and cleaning. In spite of her conservative morality, she also appears to want to have sex with Max. See a pattern here? She’s obsessed with manners and proper etiquette.
Gimme: Gimme came out late in the first season and is a kind of feral beast. It urinates on her father’s bed while he’s sleeping, making him believe he’s doing it. It doesn’t speak. It merely growls and grunts.
Shoshana: In the 2nd season, this is the most frequent transition. After several months of not transitioning at all, Tara begins to think she’s cured. The family holds a clothes-burning celebration to destroy clothes used by the alters. When Buck returns and has an affair, Tara realizes she needs help again. The neighbors offer her a book written by a famous New York doctor. Tara ends up having therapy with the doc, except now she’s also the doc. This is the first alter that Tara shares consciousness with.
Chicken: Another 2nd season alter, Chicken is Tara as a little girl.
With all of this it’s no wonder the kids are just as messed up as Mom is. Son Marshall is experimenting with being gay. He has a lot of feminine habits that cause much ridicule from Buck. Kate is the teenage daughter, who might love the permissiveness of T but is suffering the most from Tara’s condition. She’s a bit of a slut and quite self-centered. Her sister Charmaine is the least accepting of the disorder. She doesn’t completely buy it all and wearies of the attention it provides for Tara. Husband Max appears to take all of this in stride. Most of the time he appears to treat it all as if it were a joke, until Tara might have cheated on him as T.
Most of the episodes begin with Tara taping herself with a camcorder. She’s offering up some words of wisdom or trying to unravel what’s happened to her recently with the alters. After each “transition”, the family meets to discuss what happened with Tara. She becomes jealous of her alters and fears that Max will break the agreement about sex with the alters.
Toni Collette just doesn’t sell it for me. The alters are just too over-the-top for me, and her transition looks like those stage comic impersonators. You know the shtick. They turn around just before doing an impression, and bingo, they go into full impersonation mode. I also don’t buy the amount of awareness Tara has for her alters. What little I know about these conditions seems to run counter to that aspect of her performance. There’s too much evidence that Tara needs to get back on her meds or be hospitalized. It borders on abuse to allow the children to be put in these situations. T and Buck are not only irresponsible. They are dangerous. There is even a hint on the show that before Tara went on her meds she had put the children’s lives in danger. They let Buck carry around a gun, for crying out loud. T has keys to the car and drives recklessly and flirts with other men. It’s all just a little too much for me to accept. Without acceptance, you never care for the characters enough to become invested in the show.
More plot points from the second season involve: Kate dressing up as a Norse Warrior Princess. At first it’s to help a starving comic artist get out of debt. Eventually she has YouTube music videos and is performing fetish acts online for “gifts”. A neighbor commits suicide, so Max decides to fix the house up and flip it at a profit. It becomes a place for him to work out his frustrations. But when he gets ripped off, he ends up beating the crap out of the guy and lands in jail. Marshall is now trying to live an openly gay life, but is hampered when a girl attaches herself to him. She doesn’t care if he’s gay. She just wants to be a power couple. The series ends with some family secrets getting out.
Each episode of Tara is filmed is presented in a 1.78:1 widescreen format. I did not watch the series during its cable run. The picture quality is fair. I expected a little bit better from Showtime. This looks like a standard modern sit-com. Colors are natural enough, but it all looks a bit sterile and lifeless. You’ll find some compression artifact. They crammed too many episodes on these discs.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is pretty much average. The show is considerably dialog-heavy. For some reason, this is not the default audio track. It defaults to 2.0. You actually need to change it if you want the surround option. Of course, maybe they already knew you might not even notice the difference.
You can’t chapter skip away from the previously on and credits stuff. It sucks because it causes a major digital leap if you are not careful. Also, both discs contain a Showtime ad that you can’t even ff through. Major points lost here.
Chats With The Cast: (34:40) Cast members answer questions.
Biographies and photo gallery
If you liked the first season, you will likely be happy to come back for more. There is actually less of the transition stuff here, and I’m happy to report the show allows other cast members to have more of the focus. I actually think that’s great, but I suspect you die-hard fans really want more of Tara and her alters. Except for Buck, you won’t see very much of any of them. There are only token “cameos” of the other alters in this season. Marshall’s exploration of gay life is quite dominant. While he hasn’t completely crossed that line, I suspect he will soon. “Oh, I’m sure you’ll see Marshall in a gown eventually.”