Sunday, February 17, 2013

Exploring Mental Illness and the Dark Side of Humor with United States of Tara

Recently the show United States of Tara came up in conversation. I had heard the name before but knew literally nothing about it. When the conversation revealed both that it was a show about a woman with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) and it starred Toni Collette, I thought it could be interesting. However, the conversation trailed off to other topics and I promptly forgot about it. But then when I was looking for something to watch on Netflix and United States of Tara popped up as recommended, I decided to give it a try. Despite being a little iffy after watching the first two episodes, I was soon hooked. So hooked that I got through the entire series in just about a week. Yeah, I know. To my credit, I watched a lot of those episodes late at night when I couldn't sleep so it wasn't like I was neglecting my work just to watch TV. (Note: There are spoiler alerts scattered throughout this post so reader beware.)

As the series opens up, we are presented with the titular character, Tara Gregson, a Kansan artist who is a wife and mother of two. On the outside, it might seem like she has the stereotypically perfect life. But Tara has DID and shares her body with three alters - Buck, a Vietnam vet who likes to drink beer, ride his motorcycle, shoot guns, and pick up women; T, a teenager who likes to party, drink and do drugs, and have sex with just about any male; and Alice, a prim and proper 1950s housewife who likes to bake, wants to have a baby, and can think of nothing better to do with her life than please her husband and children. Purportedly these alters have been under control for years but they have resurfaced after Tara has recently decided to go off her medication because it made her feel like a zombie. Besides dealing with the reappearance of all these personalities and the havoc they wreak, Tara and her husband Max are trying to track down the traumatic source behind Tara's psychological problems, which they think originate in a sexual assault that occurred when Tara was a teenager in boarding school. Meanwhile, their two teenaged children have problems of their own. Fed up with the literal insanity in her house, Kate applies for a mind-numbing, minimum wage job only to find out that her boss is a real creeper who becomes obsessed with her. Her brother Marshall has a crush on a boy who may or may not also be gay. Tara's sister Charmaine, who is frequently stopping in on the family, is trying to make good for herself but can't seem to hold a job and is having an on-again-off-again fling with Max's friend Neil.

By season two, Tara and Max have unearthed that her trauma dates back further in her childhood and so they dig deeper to find out what happened to her. In addition to the appearance of a fourth alter in season one (Gimme, an id-like personality), Tara now displays two more alters - Chicken, a 5-year-old version of herself, and Shoshanna Schoenbaum, a New York City therapist that her neighbor once frequented. Kate has moved on to a job as a debt collector, which throws her into the path Lynda P. Frazier, an artist and free thinker who inspires Kate and takes her down unexpected paths. After having his first relationship fail miserably, Marshall tries out the idea of dating a girl, only to discover that he is indeed gay. And Charmaine's plan to marry the dashing Nick are complicated when she finds out she is pregnant with Neil's baby.

In season three, Tara seems to have recovered a great deal since learning about her childhood trauma. She's now ready to finish up the college degree she didn't quite obtain, although Max worries that the stress will cause a breakdown. On campus she meets and begins working with Dr. Hatteras, her abnormal psychology professor, and thinks she is getting better. But yet another alter appears; this time it is Bryce, an alter who takes on the personality of her original abuser. Meanwhile, Kate has a brilliant plan to teach English in Japan but chickens out at the last moment, deciding to become a flight attendant instead. While on the job, she meets Evan, a divorcee with a young son, whom she starts to like a great deal. Marshall is becoming more focused on film-making and finds himself in the middle of a love triangle. Charmaine and Neil move in together and prepare for their baby's arrival. And Max is forced to sell his business to a competitor and begin working for the man.

A lot happens in these 36 episodes, but for the most part, the pacing always feels right. Nothing feels rushed or skipped around, with the exception of the Kate character. Her story lines frequently felt jumpy, although overall it was interesting to watch her grow as a character. For instance, in the pilot episode the Gregson family goes to see Kate's ballet recital but after this episode, we never see or hear of this hobby again. Later, her obsessive former boss magically disappears never to be seen again after season one despite her repeated earlier attempts to rid herself of him. (This includes a sexual harassment suit in which the corporation in question refused to side with her, saying she was a willing partner. This frustrated me to no end because she was underage at the time, which by law means she could not be a willing partner regardless of the circumstances.) In the beginning of season two, Kate is seen receiving her general equivalency diploma (GED) in the mail, even though there was never any mention in season one that she didn't intend to finish high school traditionally. Later in that season as she becomes closer to Lynda P. Frazier and starts to embody Princess Valhalla Hawkwind, her job at the debt management company just disappears, even though she never mentions quitting work there. She also takes up with Zach towards the end of season two and is seen making all sorts of long-term plans with him, such as buying a condo. But then they get into a fight before Charmaine's wedding and she asks him to leave -- after which we never see him or hear of him ever again. At the beginning of season three, she suddenly lives with Charmaine instead of her parents, again with no indication beforehand this was a plan or even an inkling in her mind. Putting these small(?) details aside, her character arc showed her progressing from a self-absorbed teenager who takes advantage of her mother's illness for her own gain at times, makes bad and unsafe choices, is materialistic, and wants nothing more than to get away from her family to a young woman with a steady job, a seemingly stable and healthy relationship that is growing deeper, and a desire to be near her family and provide them with the support they need.

Kate is not alone in being a character who deepens emotionally; Charmaine starts off the series somewhat self-absorbed herself and not in the least bit supportive of her sister. Indeed, she keeps insisting that Tara is just "acting" like these other personalities for attention and refers to her sister's sexual assault in boarding school as "she had sex with some guy she didn't want to have sex with." One of the most poignant scenes in the first season is when Buck takes care of Charmaine after her surgery and you see that Charmaine "gets it" for the first time. Despite a sometimes bumpy road between the sisters in future episodes, Charmaine becomes increasingly closer to Tara, moving in with the Gregsons for a while and then moving next door. It's heartbreaking when at the end of the final season, she is planning to move away because of Neil's work and other circumstances, and she is torn between protecting her newborn daughter from Tara's evil Bryce alter and being there to support her sister.

In an interview with TV Guide, the show's creator said she originally wanted Charmaine's character to be there as "an antagonist. Actually, I wanted someone to be a voice for the skeptics. There are a lot of people who believe that DID isn't real. And, there are a lot of people who would look at Tara's behavior and say, 'Oh, that's just silly; that's just selfish.' I wanted Charmaine to be representative of that opinion. I also liked the idea of Charmaine being kinda insecure and attention-starved — like Tara's issues were kind of stealing the spotlight from her, which is a pretty twisted way of thinking. I have to admit I did originally envision them as being enemies and then as I continued to write episodes I found myself having a lot of affection for Charmaine. I think there's a lot more to her." As Charmaine became more supportive of Tara as the show progressed, it seems that another voice for the skeptics was needed. Enter Dr. Hatteras in season three. Despite being a psychologist, he does not believe in the existence of DID and poo-poos Tara's problems with her alters away as her simply being unable to deal with the consequences of her own actions. But again, no character is static and eventually we watched Dr. Hatteras become more convinced of the actuality of Tara's disorder, first in a stunning scene where he watches Tara's alters scribble all over her exam paper and her body and later with deadly realization when Bryce tries to kill him by adding an allergen to his food.

The other male characters grow also, though perhaps less markedly than Kate, Charmaine, and Dr. Hatteras. Marshall's story is largely that of a typical teenager, exploring his sexuality, trying to find and fit in with a group that accepts him, and discovering and refining his talents. Still, he has some very heavy issues to deal with, including obviously his mother's mental health and how it affects his own social and academic life. He has some deep moments where he momentarily breaks down, like when he gets almost insanely enraged after he finds T seducing the boy he has a crush on or when Lionel dies and he refuses to accept emotional support at first. He also flirts with risky behavior (drugs, cruising with older gay man, threesomes) at times, usually as a result of peer pressure from Lionel. Max in the first season seems to be there almost as the straight man to everything going on around him. He's often described as a saint by the others around him who don't understand how he puts up with everything. But even he has his own moments of betrayal, including a one-night stand with a bartender and shouting matches with Tara. By the second season, we learn more about his past, including how his own mother isn't in the best mental health either (she's a hoarder who is largely afraid to leave her home) and that his father skipped out on him as a child. We also learn more about his past hobbies (a garage band) and a little bit about when he and Tara first got together. I was glad to see his character becoming more fleshed out and well rounded like this, for I'd hate for such a good series to be hampered by having a one-dimensional character who just sighed and picked up the pieces after Tara's alters rampaged through town.

And, of course, there's Tara herself, but I think the brief summations I gave above of the plot lines of each season provide enough insight into her transformations. We see these transformations a lot through the use of a framing device; Tara (and some of her alters) keeps a video journal, which serves to let her unpack without judgment but also for others to go back and watch her progress over time. She notes somewhat early on in the series about her DID that "it's going to get worse before it gets better" and that seems to be reflected throughout the show. Unfortunately, I feel like the show in some way gave itself a Catch-22 by making her alters so ridiculous and at times, quite funny. One part of you is very vested in Tara, feeling sympathy for her and wanting her to get better. At the same time though, you've been introduced to these wild characters who are so interesting to watch. So while you want Tara to heal and get better, you start to miss some of the alters when you see them less often. It's a very complicated line to walk, but for the most part I think the show does a decent job with it.

The show also does a pretty decent job with portraying DID, at least in the beginning. The first season does great work introducing the disorder to those who might not know about it without being overly didactic. In later seasons, things get a bit dicier. I'm not an expert on DID by any means; indeed, I only know a little bit about it. But even so, some of the things that happen in the third season seemed a bit off. By this season, Tara is seen outside of her body as her alters take over it, aware of what is going on and in some cases, even speaking to her alters. She makes a contract with her alters and arrangements for who can use her body when. Later, Bryce appears and begins "killing" off the other alters, with Tara stating that she can no longer feel them inside her. Ultimately, Tara kills the Bryce alter, which seems like a major breakthrough but when she packs up and heads for professional help in Boston, the original three alters are seen on the truck's bed. (It's really a rather odd bit at the ending and unfortunately makes the conclusion slightly less optimistic than I would have liked.) Also, earlier in season two when Shoshanna was first introduced as an alter, Tara doesn't seem to realize she has a new personality yet but thinks she has actually spoken to the real Dr. Schoenbaum in New York City. This kind of delusion seems more in line with a mental illness like schizophrenia than DID.

Throughout the show, it also does a great job of bridging the gap between drama and comedy. Too much comedy and the show could come across as flippant about a serious mental illness. But the show might be less palatable if it were all drama all the time with no levity thrown in to lighten the mood occasionally. While some of it is physical comedy, most of the humor comes from sarcastic remarks made by the characters; this very much reminds me of real life where we realize we have to make jokes in order to make terrible situations manageable. (Speaking of realism, it might be worth pointing out that the show can be rather crass at times, particularly in its language. I've complained in the past that if Showtime's idea of pushing boundaries is by dropping curses into every line, that's rather puerile. But in this series I found it didn't bother me as much. There were times all the foul language was a bit much, but given the difficult situations these characters find themselves in frequently, it's not at all unreasonable to think they'd be letting a lot of f-bombs and other choice words fly.) To use a rather silly saying, the Gregson family puts the "fun" in "dysfunctional." The timing of the comic lines are just right to break up the dramatic moments, and the actors are fabulous at delivery. One of my favorite moments of dark humor comes at the conclusion of the pilot episode when the Gregson family goes out bowling but it is Buck there instead of Tara. Kate notes to her father, "It's weird that Buck is the only one that's left-handed." Max dryly replies, "Yeah, that's the weird part." End scene. Cue the credits.

Speaking of acting, everyone does a fantastic job in this show, fully fleshing out their characters and progressing them forward as I described earlier. Specifically, Toni Collette deserves all the praise in the world for successfully embodying not only Tara but every single one of her alters. (Kudos also to the hair, makeup, and wardrobe departments who helped to physically transform her for each personality.) John Corbett, who I confess I didn't care two straws for either way in the past, is terrific as Max and I'll think you'll find it difficult not to love him. Brie Larson as Kate, Keir Gilchrist as Marshall, and Rosemary DeWitt as Charmaine round out the main cast. And I enjoyed having the special guest star of Eddie Izzard, whose comedy I adore, in the role of Dr. Hatteras. Other notable recurring actors include Viola Davis as Lynda B. Frazier, Fred Ward and Pamela Reed as Tara's parents, Joey Lauren Adams as the bartender Pammy, Michael Hitchcock as the Gregson's neighbor Ted, Keir O'Donnell as Evan, and Frances Conroy as Max's mother.

Besides the characters, another thing I enjoyed about the show was the air of mystery in the first two seasons regarding the trauma Tara is trying to protect herself from by use of the alters. In season two, there's occasionally flashbacks as Tara's memories of times she's blacked out are starting to coming back to her. In particular, spending time in the Hubbard house, her former neighbor's home now owned by the Gregsons, seems to be pushing some of these memories to the forefront. There's a scene when they first acquire the Hubbard house and she walks about the house, finally ending up in a room set up as an office (later used by Shoshanna to "see" clients). In it, she opens a closet door and seems to have some sort of revelation. One of the few things I didn't like about the show is that we never saw what was in that closet. I thought perhaps the writers were waiting for some sort of big reveal eventually but it remains a mystery. In fact, we never really learn why the Hubbard house brought back so many memories for Tara.

Back to things the show did well; it may be a small thing, but the Gregson family's refrigerator had large magnets with words on them (prominently including the word "mother" among others) and how these magnets were arranged often spoke to the atmosphere of the household at the time. It was such a tiny thing in the background that it may go unnoticed by many, but I think it really helped to add yet another layer to this already complex story. Another small but really stellar part of the show in the first two seasons was the opening credits. I absolutely loved the pop-up illustrations of Tara's alters and the theme song was quite appropriate. (Honestly, the music throughout the show was always done well, with the most perfectly fitting song attached to the end of each episode.) In the third season, there was no longer an introduction at all, which was disappointing although I suppose understandable given that more alters had made their presence known than the original three highlighted in the opening. Still, I found that I missed it. In fact, now that I've blown through the whole series so quickly, I find that I miss these characters. The final few episodes did feel a bit rushed as I think the writers no doubt originally meant to unveil and explore the Bryce character at a slower pace before they found out the show was canceled. Nonetheless, the series ended in a way in which certain things felt wrapped up enough - or at least like you could envision how they could turn out eventually. After investing so much in these characters, that's a good thing.

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