For a show that started from such a gimmicky place, The United States Of Tara has sure evolved into one of the most normal series on TV at a rapid pace. Actually, let me qualify that. The show—an equal mix of odd comedy and dark psychological drama—is anything but normal in its template. But also at its base, it’s a warm, loving show about a family that really tries to take care of each of its members, even when those members are being real pieces of shit. And, really, is there anything more normal than that on the TV landscape? It’s that deceptively domestic base that allows the show to really get away with some of the terrific stuff it does, with pushing into the dark territory it explores with surprising frequency and then pressing forward, when most shows would have had some sort of half-hearted sappy resolution. The happy endings on Tara almost always work because they feel earned and because you know they’re just minor respites. Tara can’t magically get “better” because that’s not how recovery from serious psychological disorders works (not to mention television). She can only find moments of peace.
The third season premiere finds her in one of those moments of peace, even as she’s continuing to transition into other identities, most notably her Vietnam veteran, ass-kicking motorcyclist persona, Buck. Buck’s been driving around town, looking for people who will answer to the name of Tara’s long-lost half-brother and growing more and more frustrated with his inability to find the guy. (It’s interesting that the show lets the audience in on this but not the characters, who seem baffled as to why Buck keeps disappearing for long periods of time.) At the same time, she’s considering finishing up her college degree, something that got sidelined years ago when she attempted to kill herself in the closing moments of her college career. She’s got about a semester’s worth of coursework left to take, but Max can’t help but be nervous about it. He doesn’t want to end up in another hospital room, waiting for her to wake up.
At the same time, Kate’s trying to find a job and finding herself stymied by those videos she posted of herself dressed as a superhero, sitting on a cake last season (don’t ask), while Marshall and boyfriend Lionel are making movies together and contemplating buying a camera, the sort of commitment-y thing the normally non-boyfriend-material Lionel would shy away from. Max is Max, just having a fine time living life as a landscape guy in suburban Kansas (once upon a time, like most TV families, the recession has passed the Gregsons over mysteriously, though this season, it seems like Max is getting fewer and fewer jobs, which could pay off in a storyline for him down the line). And then there’s Charmaine, who’s trying to hold on to her failed almost-marriage, even though the guy she should clearly be with is there, waiting on her hand and foot, just not looking like the kind of man she’d want to be her husband. Yes, things are more or less “normal” in Tara-world, which can only mean that things are about to get incredibly fucked up.
Whereas Tara started out as a show where the central gimmick—Tara has multiple personalities and one or two of them manifest in every episode—was pretty much the reason to have a show (and to have someone like Toni Collette starring), the series has very nicely settled into a groove where it’s a family dramedy first and a show about a woman with dissociative identity disorder second. (And it’s here that I’ll note that there’s a rather lengthy debate over whether DID is even real, and that DID in real life is very different from the DID that’s portrayed in the series. I don’t really care about these arguments. For the purposes of the show’s fiction, DID exists, and it operates like this. I understand those intimately involved in the debate on all sides will feel differently, but if you’re going to enjoy the series, you have to accept certain things about its premise, just like with any other series that stretches reality here and there.) Some of this has arisen out of the fact that the family on this show is exceptionally well-cast. Collette, John Corbett, Brie Larson, and Keir Gilchrist all have a fantastic sense of “family chemistry,” and the show’s writers play to this. It’s relatively easy to believe that the Gregsons, for all of their trials, have really been together as a family all this time and really do love and care about each other (as well as give each other shit).
But what makes this more than just a family dramedy, like, say, Parenthood, is the fact that Tara’s condition is always lurking, always ready to make things more complicated. Something awful happened to Tara when she was a kid, something both she and Charmaine have willfully forgotten, and the horror of that pain is ever-present, even if the actual memory of it isn’t. Every season, the closer Tara gets to the truth about what happened to her, the further away it seems. I’m not sure how long the show can keep playing with this structure (and I hope the answers about Tara’s half-brother are the ultimate ones for why she’s the way she is, not to mention why Charmaine has some lingering PTSD of some sort as well), but what works about it is that the “reason” is beside the point. Should Tara discover the reason for her DID, it wouldn’t automatically make her better. It would just be another answer in a life that’s been filled with too many that have just led to more pain. It’s remarkable just how much creator Diablo Cody and her writers (including this season’s showrunners, Brett Baer and Dave Finkel) have created a show billed as a “comedy,” a show with a handful of good laughs in every episode, but a show that has its engine run almost entirely on raw hurt and dark pain. It’s not for everyone, but its commitment to its story and characters means it almost never sells itself short.
That said, “…youwillnotwin…” is more or less a setting the table episode, though a good example of the form. Charmaine has a complication with the pregnancy that turns out to be nothing, but Neil rushes to her side once he gets the news (while out bowling and drinking with Max). Kate discovers the Internet follows her around forever. Marshall… well, Marshall’s mostly there. (Really, the storylines for the kids on this show can be hit and miss.) And Tara goes back to school, where her professor—played by Eddie Izzard!—allows her to jump in on his class assuming she can ace the essay due Wednesday. She drives herself to a point where it seems like she’ll never be able to succeed (hence the title, typed in a distracted nervous rage), until, of all things, all of her alters—her other personalities—come to her to help her through the paper. As Shoshanna begins pontificating on the roots of the word hysteria and Tara takes dictation, the show reveals that this season seems like it will be less about Tara trying to get rid of her condition and more about her trying to rebuild her life by learning to live with it somehow.
- I’m taking over for Claire Zulkey, who will be filling in on weeks when I’m much, much too busy. I really enjoy the show and look forward to talking about it with the (small) number of you who do as well.
- I hope they didn’t get a bowling stunt double for Patton Oswalt. I hope he has secret mad bowling skills.
- I also hope the old title sequence isn't gone. I always liked it.
- One of the things I really enjoyed about last season was that it examined just how hard all of this is on Max, just how much his own life has been disrupted by being married to a woman who isn’t always herself. He came back to domestic bliss in the end, but it didn’t feel like the issues he was exploring were entirely gone. I hope the show picks up that thread again.
- Any alters you never need to see again? I was glad to see the show substantially ramp down the involvement of Tee last season and could stand to have her around as little as possible.
- I liked the line about Tara being an annoying grown-up eager for a second chance. Ain't that always the way?
- Missed the episode but think it sounds vaguely interesting? Well, you can watch it below!