(Un) constituting “the United States of Tara”

12 Sep

4th article in our series on Hollywood & Mental Health

Finished after it’s third season for episodic television, Diablo Cody’s and Showtime’s “The United States of Tara” (or UST) had it’s charms if one could tolerate the fair amount of predictability necessary to sustain the central premise of this comedic drama.  Was that show a formulaic comedy? No, it was not.  Yet Cody, at the end of the first season, informs us how the series dramatic challenges will derive, how the series dramatic challenges will be stated and how the series dramatic challenges would be resolved at the end of each episode.  This may not hinder many fans especially if they are committed the consuming the exploits of the central cast.  Despite an intriguing run the numbers weren’t there at cancellation.   

http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001057/

What was the central premise; living with multiple personalities was hell for the main character yet that condition violently imposed on every other personality in the main character’s environment.  For those who did not live in proximity to this mental disorder, the show might likely play as a delightful fantasy; to challenge Tara’s improbable family, Tara’s condition was earnestly mined for all of its comedic and narrative opportunities. So let’s explore the main characters. For those who enjoy being “a fly on the wall” regarding other’s problems, their experiential dramas really described the highlights of the show.

If you are a fan of acting in contemporary film, you couldn’t help but appreciate the gifts of Tara Gregson, UST’s main character.  Played by the always-versatile Toni Collette, the actress seamlessly transformed into all of the personalities (affectionately described as “alters”) of the series central heroine.  A career defined by so many supporting characters, it really wasn’t surprising that Collette had the acting chops to make Tara’s alter egos appear discernible and sympathetic.  Adding other visual cues, what Collette doesn’t supply, the series costume designer Kirston Leigh Mann and Costume Supervisor, Gala Autumn., provided audiences the distinct character designs that would otherwise diminish our confusion.  Toni plays Tara, Buck, Alice, “T”, and in the late first season “Gimme.”  Illustrator and muralist Tara agonized over a condition she can’t control nor could she diminish the impacts on her family.  Buck was Tara’s only masculine alter, a truck driver of sorts Buck expresses so many of the statements that help us define Toni’s other characters as distinctly feminine.  Alice, a kind of June Cleaver stereotype, represents all that we came to appreciate in 50’s television archetypes.  “T” is an amalgam of slutty teen; pop cultural characters that we have been introduced to in music videos, television and movies.  Urinating on sleeping cast members, and running around fairly naked in a rain poncho, a more primal spirit, Gimme, is a wild card character who is hard to predict.

Playing Tara’s husband, Max Gregson portrayed by John Corbett plays a character we have seen a few times on TV and film before on “Sex and the City,” and “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”.  Affable liberal tall guy, there isn’t a situation that is too complicated for Max to conquer.  Idealized yet working class Landscape Designer, Corbett is usually filmed to fill up most of the screen frames he appears in, he is a kind of stabilizing presence in women), for every situation Max’s perspective is far less subjective when things get out of hand and Tara is too close to a situation to lend the audience any narrative distance.

Playing Tara’s oldest child Kate Gregson, Brie Larson plays Tara’s slutty oldest child.  Because she frequently complains about the results of being so loose, she’s clearly described as being deprived of the parental supervision that might have diminished her tendency to explore the opportunities made available by her attractiveness.  In this way she described as being sympathetic.  Supposedly the main character’s psychological distractions explain her mother’s absence and explain why Kate has time to pursue most of the adult men whom eventually fall under her web.  This doesn’t keep her from complaining like a more stereotypical teen, yet the infrequency of this complaining makes us want to root for the character when she is over her head.  Unlike with the adventures of so many of televisions all knowing children, situation where Kate finds herself unprepared for adult situations occur frequently.

Playing Tara’s oldest child Marshall Gregson, Keir Gilchrist, plays Tara’s youngest child.  Gay, and discernibly out (within the family), he bides his time as a likely high school honor student who helps around the house by executing many of the domestic chores another TV show would have expected of Tara.  When he isn’t doing typical high school chores he tends to occupy himself with theatrical pastimes that give him fine opportunities to explore his attraction to other male teens on the show.  Like his sister, he tends to outsmart the adults around him hinting of a maturity beyond his years to cope with a chaotic household.  Though played as the more reliable of the theatrically interested teens, Marshall’s norms intentionally plays down the apparent challenges presented by his sexuality.

The last of UST’s cast Rosemary Dewitt plays Charmaine Craine Tara’s sister. Discernibly less outwardly supportive, like the others, she has been scared by Tara’s affliction too.  She complains that her sole role in the family is to report on Tara’s problems. And seeming to have fallen into a range of working class jobs she hasn’t been able create enough distance to carve out a life of her own.  Frequently called on to help put out Tara’s fires in their community, Charmaine is both an ally and sometimes critic.  More than anyone she plays us who frequently has a hard time understanding whether Tara has a discernible condition or is just acting out.

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After a series of confrontations, late in the first season Diablo Cody supposedly does us the favor of letting us know the alters actually play a narrative role in all of the drama’s presented on the show.    Admitting to Tara’s limitations, Alice is a reaction to conventional traumas that require the intervention of super TV moms.  Buck is the embodiment of how women have to frequently be men to navigate a “man’s world” of confrontations.  And “T” is the embodiment of the kind of care free spirit that one might need to understand the world of teens.

Is this the “dissociative identity disorder” or (D.I.D.) that anyone really experiences in the real world? No, it isn’t. When Rachel Stein of “Television without pit .com” said

…If a few more people were able to get over their Diablo Cody hang-ups and move past the fact that the show took liberties with dissociative identity disorder in order to, you know, be a fictional series about a struggling family,” [3]

She wasn’t kidding.  This condition isn’t especially designed to support narrative situations let alone support them with complimentary opportunities, conclusions and options.  Yet the scientific accounts of medical journals don’t really play as well for episodic TV [4].

Like so many cable shows the United States of Tara demonstrates that serious real events can be the material of episodic dramas.  But we’ll probably take a few more iterations of this opportunity to really hone the real desperations, horrors, and dearth of resources that really typify this stressful psychological condition.

Also see: Travis & Jodi-A Love to Die For

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Essential resources:

[1] http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001057/

[2] http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0179173/?ref_=sr_1

[3] http://www.ç/brilliantbutcancelled/we-knew-them-when/2013/01/united-states-of-tara-showtime-where-are-they-now/

[4] http://www.webmd.com/mental-health/dissociative-identity-disorder-multiple-personality-disorder

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11 Responses to “(Un) constituting “the United States of Tara””

  1. Open Book September 12, 2013 at 3:00 PM #

    CR- FANTASTIC!

    I will say Toni Collette is really good in UST but the show to me was way over the top. It is funny if u can ignore the kids having to become their Mom’s caretaker.

    CR- We all have different aspects of our personality that we show in different situations (e.g. a work self, a parent self, a friend self, a sexual self, a playful self, etc.). In this way, we all have multiple selves. However, the normality of having multiples selves or states of mind (often called “ego states”) differs significantly from what is found in individuals with DID.

    In watching UST do u think audiences can learn something about this condition or do u think people with D.I.D. are being misrepresented?

  2. ComicRelief September 12, 2013 at 5:55 PM #

    I’m not a doctor, and I’m a huge fan of Diablo Cody’s feature film work. We really do need more thoughtful women writing for film. “Juno” and “Young Adult” were fantastic movies.

    Yet, I do think people with D.I.D. were being misrepresented.

    • Open Book September 12, 2013 at 6:00 PM #

      I loved both these films. ITA we do need more smart and thoughtful women writers. What is it u like about these two films?

      • Com1c Relief September 12, 2013 at 7:43 PM #

        Though they were very VERY different,both were reflective and had inner lives. This contrasts or contradicts so many female characters in feature film.

  3. Open Book September 12, 2013 at 7:33 PM #

    Hi Everyone!

  4. Open Book September 12, 2013 at 7:37 PM #

    CR- Do u think UST has helped or hurt the stigma associated with people with this mental condition?

    • ComicRelief September 12, 2013 at 7:54 PM #

      Honestly the show wasn’t that popular. If it had been it would still be on.

      If it did anything negative it told trend monkeys, mental illness wasn’t popular. Those types have really short attention spans and ultimately they would not have been good for any awakening about the tests and trials concerning mental illness.

  5. Open Book September 12, 2013 at 7:45 PM #

    Here is some criticism about UST

    “To stay on the right side of the facts, producers hire medical advisors. But even those folks don’t have an easy time of it. Richard Kluft, the clinical psychiatrist who serves as the consultant for the “Tara” series, took a look at the first episode and had concerns about how the seriousness of DID (and that its most common cause is thought to be childhood abuse) would be translated. It “was so funny, and so raucous, and so sexual,” he says, that it gave him pause. But subsequent episodes became “more nuanced, more complex, more bittersweet, and much more genuinely like what we may see [as therapists],” he says. Kluft offers as much advice on the medical accuracy of the show as he can, though he says the writers may not always use it. At one point after glancing over a preliminary script, he pointed out that Tara’s alters would not just pop out one right after another without commenting on the presence of the alter before her, and the script was changed—though Kluft isn’t sure it was adjusted because of his input, or if the alteration was something the writers already had in mind.”

    he goes on to say

    “Though he’s happy with the show overall, he admits he still winces at some of the depictions of Tara and DID and notes that the main character’s more flamboyant alters are typical of only 1 in 20 DID cases.”

    • ComicRelief September 12, 2013 at 8:34 PM #

      OB,

      Well that statement just about says it all doesn’t it.

  6. Open Book September 12, 2013 at 7:57 PM #

    CR-

    Here is an interview about the shows being canceled

    http://www.vulture.com/2011/05/diablo_cody_on_united_states_o_1.html

  7. littlebells September 14, 2013 at 3:10 PM #

    CR!

    Great article and thank you for filing me in on what UST was really about. I wonder if the show really showed just how devastating DID can be if it would have been more successful.

    Did you ever find yourself questioning motives or “hows” and “whys” while watching this show?

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