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United States of Tara

United States of Tara (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Allison Jones has to be one of the most insightful people working in Hollywood. Who is she, you ask? She is the casting director who has brought together the brilliant ensemble casts of The Office, Arrested Development, Freaks and Geeks, and even The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. She also has several movie credits, and, of course, she did the inspired casting in United States of Tara, a show that has excellent acting and writing, but still received the ax far too soon.

Toni Collette is just too under-appreciated. Yes, she picked up Emmy and Golden Globe wins for her portrayal of Tara, a mom and housewife afflicted with multiple personality disorder (or dissociative identity disorder, as Tara prefers), and she’s gotten Oscar nominations for some of her films, but I still don’t think it’s enough for the hurdles she jumps for every role she takes on. She is utterly believable in every part I’ve seen her play, and the character she plays in Tara is a role that requires huge acting chops; it would be a daunting role for anyone to play. Yet she slips in and out of the role of Tara Gregson–a Kansas artist/mom/wife whose body houses three alter egos–smoothly and effortlessly. One moment, she’s Tara, a young, loving, hip mom, the next, she’s transitioned into T, a lewd teenager, or Buck, a tough and crass truck driver, or Alice, a housewife stuck in the 1950s, complete with apron and pearls. The show makes good use of every chance it can to show Tara transition to the alters, but mostly it revolves around how her condition affects her and her family’s lives and how they work together to cope.

John Corbett plays Max Gregson, Tara’s long-suffering husband. He is every bit as rugged, masculine, yet affectionate in this role as he was as Aiden, the role that made women across the United States fall in love in Sex and the City. In Tara, he plays the supportive husband of the afflicted wife without ever coming across as a victim. He guides her through their life as they try to remember the trauma caused Tara such stress that to cope, she split into alternate personalities that act out in ways that Tara can’t remember. Throughout the series, when Tara’s alters seem to be too much to handle, it begs the question: why won’t Max leave her and have her committed? And throughout the series, the answer is always that he loves her, for better or for worse.

Max and Tara’s kids, sensitive and intellectual Marshall (Keir Gilchrist) and free-spirited and independent Kate (Brie Larson) round out their nuclear family. The kids have grown up with their mom’s alters, so they don’t know anything different. These guys are great teenagers; they love their mom, and accept that her alters makes their family dysfunctional, but they don’t resent Tara or hold their unusual situation against her. They are a tight family; everyone loves everyone, flaws and all. As a family, their banter is honest and quippy, but not clichéd. Their interactions are fun to watch, and show how a family such as this could function. It helps, too, that the actors playing the kids are actually young enough to pass as teenagers. Rosemarie DeWitt plays Tara’s self-obsessed sister, and Patton Oswalt plays Max’s best friend who is also hopelessly smitten with Tara’s sister. Their inclusion in the family circle adds another dynamic that helps to expand the Gregson family beyond its four immediate members, offering more occasions for Tara’s alters to wreak havoc, leaving Tara and the group to pick up the pieces.

The show could have bordered on sensational if the acting and writing weren’t so finely tuned. Obviously, Tara’s transitions to her alters are the incentive to watch, but Collette does an impeccable job of not making these transitions seem too manufactured; in the final season, she does tend to make her transitions evident by a lowering of her head, accompanied by a sound effect like blowing wind; it’s a little too obvious. Still, her quick switch from character to character is admirable, especially as the series continues and new alters appear throughout the three seasons. The rest of the cast is believable in their roles as well, and what could have easily turned into a show where every episode revolves only around the alters is engaging and thought-provoking. I was glad I watched it on DVD, since I had a hard time turning off the TV after just one or two episodes. Unfortunately, the show was not renewed after its third season, but in the short time it had on the air, it created a solid plot and sympathetic characters that just didn’t have enough time to fully flesh out the ambition and the story its creators had in mind.

My rating: Loved it (five of five stars)

Quick facts: United States of Tara, 2009-2011; rated TV-MA; created by Diablo Cody; executive producers Diablo Cody and Steven Spielberg; originally aired on Showtime.