Sometimes it’s just a similar premise. Sometimes the resemblance is uncanny. But every now and then a TV episode can’t help but recall another. In Double Takes, we explore the doppelgangers of television, the unshakable connections between them, and the illuminating distinctions.
The first pleasure of watching a TV show with a unique setting is the fresh local flavor: the mining-country hooch of Justified, the San Fran landscapes of Looking, the everydamnthing of Treme. It’s refreshing to see somewhere new, even if it’s the painted-leaves-and-frosted-snow Connecticut of Burbank, California. We know it’s fake. It’s all fake. We’re watching TV. But if there’s any detail to the local flavor at all, authentic or artificial, it can help transport us to small-town Alaska or backwoods Louisiana. And that leads us to the second pleasure. It doesn’t just show us someplace different. It shows us how alike it is all over.
So it is with natural disaster TV. The west coast has the earthquake episode, an action-flick premise dividing the cast among various emergencies and challenging them to reunite. The east coast has the hurricane night, a more sitcom-friendly setup with the cast hunkered down to ride out the storm. Both get the occasional sharknado. But in between lies the more sparsely populated television Midwest with its own regional pride and preferred natural disaster. From Chicago Fire to WKRP In Cincinnati, green skies signal the tornado episode.
No matter the disaster, the point is the same. All these episodes are designed to sequester the cast somewhere as they wait out whatever calamity has befallen the neighborhood, the better for them to confront their internal tensions and overcome external obstacles. But the kind of disaster determines the episode, and tornadoes bring out the best of both worlds, dramatically speaking. Earthquakes strike suddenly and are over fast, although the damage to the highways and buildings invariably means someone has to deliver a baby in an elevator. By contrast, hurricanes are charted well in advance of landfall but last for days, as do the ensuing power outages. But twisters are anticipated by community sirens and rarely last longer than an hour. It’s a disaster fit for Goldilocks, if Goldilocks were a writer in need of a demonstration of nature’s fury to fit a half-hour script. One’s too quick and one’s too long, but the tornado episode is just right.
At least, it’s made a perfect premise in recent years for a pair of modest Midwest family comedies, The Middle’s “The Cheerleader” and United States Of Tara’s “Torando!” On both shows, when the tornado hits, everything falls apart. As soon as sirens sound, everyone piles into the basement, and the act begins, a practically real-time single-setting sequence of the cast bouncing off the walls and each other. The anxieties are different, but the breakdowns are the same. The mom, the family anchor on The Middle and the unwitting troublemaker on Tara, finally unravels, taking the rest of the family with her. Even in comedies, the tornado bunker is a crucible.
Debuting in the fall of 2009, The Middle somewhat lacked for attention amid the deluge of flashier comedies like Modern Family, Community, and Glee. In part that’s because The Middle is an old-fashioned family sitcom, not that we had too many of those at the time. Set in small-town Indiana, it centers on Patricia Heaton’s Frankie Heck, an overworked mother of three in one of scripted TV’s only working-class families of the Great Recession. Nowadays The Middle has slightly lightened up about the economy, but at the time the Hecks were living paycheck to paycheck, and you feel that live-wire energy not only in its strapped-for-cash plots but in its frantic style and colorful design.
Written by creators DeAnn Heline and Eileen Heisler, “The Cheerleader” was the show’s second episode, and the first of several stunning moments throughout the series when the house of cards comes crashing down. Bills are coming due, the kids need money for glasses and library fines, and a last-ditch publicity stunt Frankie spearheaded to save her job at the used-car lot goes horribly awry. The weather event just gives body to the metaphor. Frankie’s life is a tornado.
United States Of Tara debuted in January of that year on Showtime, following Weeds and just ahead of Nurse Jackie in the network’s line of dramedy showcases for great actresses, at a time when “dramedy” didn’t just mean “half-hour drama.” Toni Collette played a suburban Kansas mother with dissociative identity disorder, Tara Gregson, as well as Tara’s handful of alternate personalities or “alters,” sometimes visualized as a separate body altogether from Tara. Created by Diablo Cody shortly after her Oscar win for Juno and run by Alexa Junge in season one and Jill Soloway thereafter, the show is rich with that juvenile edginess that was Showtime’s stock-in-trade. But the ensemble—Collette alongside John Corbett’s cool husband Max, Brie Larson’s rebellious daughter Kate, Keir Gilchrist’s repressed gay son Marshall, and Rosemarie DeWitt as Charmaine, the princess to sister Tara’s problem child—transcends the occasional silliness to stand as one of the great modern TV families.
Arriving in the center of Tara’s second season, Craig Wright’s “Torando!” is a turning point. With the Gregsons holed up in the basement with the gay neighbors (Michael Hitchcock’s Ted and Sammy Sheik’s Hany), Tara’s alters come out and spill the family secrets, the first being that Tara’s alters are back despite an extended hiatus thanks to regular medication. It’s the first appearance of her Alice alter all season, and the drought only heightens the impact. The family is also taken aback by a new alter whom only Max had met to that point, Shoshana Schoenbaum, inspired by a book written by Ted’s therapist from New York. Shoshana lets it slip that Charmaine is pregnant by her ex rather than her new fiancé, which Charmaine had told Tara in confidence. And finally, as a tree busts the window and the outside wind starts blowing through Charmaine’s hair, Shoshana prods her to think about where her lying started, suggesting the roots of both of their issues go back to a childhood incident that Tara has repressed but that Charmaine has consciously covered up.
In her position as semi-improvised therapist, Shoshana also can’t help but draw attention to the symbolism of the situation, specifically the basement, the secret place deep down used both for locking things up and hiding from the outside. She ignores that she’s the cycling, destructive tornado ripping through the neighborhood, though. Normally Frankie Heck is the basement. Or in the parlance of “The Cheerleader,” the cheerleader. She’s the one constantly putting a smile on the family no matter how tough things get, protecting them from the overwhelming stresses of life. But after an episode of mounting bills and increasing failure, her daughter Sue (Eden Sher), not yet the supernaturally sunny force she’d become, asks, “Mom, are we gonna be okay?” And Frankie throws up her hands and says, “I don’t know.” It’s the frayed beginning of a rant whose only claim to comedy is the brutal sight of a mother looking her kids right in the eyes and telling them she can’t actually make it all better. “I can’t even afford the LCD light-up angel that I ordered on TV to surprise you all at Christmas. Surprise!”
Finally she bellows, “The truth is we’re screwed!” just as the thunder cracks and the lightning flashes across her face. Opposite her, the camera pans down the line of worried Heck children on up to their equally concerned dad, Neil Flynn’s Mike. Directed by Lee Shallat Chemel, the basement sequence is all opposition, starkly lit and blocked so that it’s Frankie against the world. Now, network family sitcoms and premium-cable indie-movie cousins serve very different masters. But where “The Cheerleader” gets expressionistic, “Torando!” goes impressionistic, momentarily swirling around the circle of neighbors in honor of the storm but quickly settling on a style of intimate moments within the large group and fluid following shots all over the room. The way Tara cycles through alters is already plenty tornado-like without the visuals emphasizing it. Instead “Torando!” director Craig Gillespie brings out the subjectivity of the characters, as when Kate walks off to call a friend and her father admonishes her from off-screen. When she hangs up, she turns around to find everyone suddenly dancing, a moment of ellipses even though it all happened in real time in the background. The different styles point to other differences. The Middle is essentially about external forces like the very invisible hand of the market, whereas United States Of Tara is about spelunking inside the characters and getting to the roots of their behavior.
Still, the tornado episodes bring out an essential affinity between The Middle and United States Of Tara. It has to do with how the families work, which has to do with how they’re framed by their producers. In both cases, the mom tries to keep a lid on the chaos, and the dad supports her. She’s the front woman, and he’s in the back playing bass. Both men are blue-collar managers, Max in construction and Mike at a quarry, and both are models of the strong, silent type. Max Gregson is so steady because he’s been there before. He’s weathered storms with Tara and her alters for years now. But the great thing about him is every time you try to peg him, say as “the strong, silent type,” he turns out to be more complicated. Sometimes it gets to be too much and he channels his anger into demolition of a house or demolition of a deserving face, but if he were any less sturdy he wouldn’t still be here. Mike Heck’s calm is more of an Occam’s razor situation: It’s just simpler that way. And simplicity is his defining virtue. Max and Mike are the ports in the storm.
So, at the end, as Frankie unconvincingly reverts to type, it’s Mike who reassures her. “We’ll get through,” he says with a “trust me” nod. And when the danger passes in Overland Park, Tara wanders off through the jungle of their street. The kids are worried about her, but Max says, “Don’t be,” and he’s not just dismissing them. He’s showing how sure he is. They’ll get through. In both cases, there’s no solution to the problems of the episode, because there couldn’t be, although the Hecks do receive a brand-new dryer on their lawn courtesy of the tornado. But just as their neighborhoods are now strewn with trees and trash, their woes remain. The only resolution is to pick each other back up again.