I’m so glad that Hollywood is finally leaving behind all those sad, disturbing portrayals of Multiple Personality Disorder. You know, like Sally Field’s Sybil or Joanne Woodward’s Eve White…er Eve Black…Jane? Stop this crazy thing?
Anyway, now we’ve got a far funnier, far lighter take on this disease, now known as Dissociative Identity Disorder. You know, because a lot of the classic mental illnesses needed a bit of pizazz to liven them up a bit. It’s not manic depression! It’s bipolar disorder! Now, what can we call schizophrenia? How about “Can You Hear Us Now?” Syndrome?
Am I sounding a bit flippant? I do apologize. I think, however, that anyone who has lived with a severe mental illness in their life, whether their own or that of someone they love, develops a bit of a gallows humor when it comes to discussing such things. It’s been a part of my life since I was 10, and I have a wicked sense of humor about it, as does my family. It’s a coping mechanism, a way to process the fact that sometimes horrible things happen and there’s no real way to “fix” any of it. Just tame it with pills, temper it with therapy, and accept that it is what it is.
Besides, it makes for a great ice breaker when you can tell the story about how you spent part of your 16th birthday in a locked ward, sharing cake with schizophrenics.
Anywho. So this show, United States of Tara, is all about Dissociative Identity Disorder, or DID. The titular Tara, played by Toni Collette, houses several distinct personalities within her: Alice, the hyper-happy housewife who’s like Donna Reed on Speed; Buck, the grizzly beer-bonged Vietnam vet; and T, the 16-year-old nympho-minx who gets away with a hella lot just because she happens to “look mature for her age.”
Here’s the happy “family” all together: Buck, Alice, Tara, and T.
Buck is Tara’s protector, the Alter meant to keep her safe from the memories of whatever trauma she survived in her adolescence that left her fractured into all these different personalities. He also keeps safe those Tara loves; he surfaces when there’s trouble in Tara’s life that she is simply ill-equipped to handle. He’s a lefty with a mean right hook, gruff and offensive, but secretly kind and caring. Alice is the Ladies Home Journal ideal of femininity and motherhood. She surfaces whenever Tara is unable to deal with her children or her marriage. She’ll bake you some muffins, mix you a martini, and wash your mouth out with public restroom liquid soap if you’re not careful. T, probably the most obnoxious of the Alters so far, is a foul-mouthed sex-crazed teen, possibly Tara’s exaggerated way of reclaiming her right to express herself freely, unshackled by the chains of whatever repressed trauma left her this way.
Just for the record, Buck is undeniably my favorite of the Alters.
It’s a delicate dance, this show, dealing with unfunny truths in a wickedly funny style. When I first heard about it, I was über-wary. I knew that it was from Diablo Cody, who was quite the “IT” craze for a while because of her screenplay for Juno. I didn’t really like Juno all that much. I didn’t care about that titular character at all and didn’t really give a shit about the story. Plus, I was so sick and tired of hearing about Stripper Pole Diablo that I wanted to wretch. Needless to say, hearing her name associated with this show was quite the turn-off.
I’m so glad I got over that hurdle. This might possibly be one of the best shows I have ever seen. The writing is exquisite, the casting is perfection, the stories are an amazingly adept balance of wit, humor, irreverence, and sincerity. Plus, there’s a vein of matter-of-factness that snakes all throughout, helping to keep us all anchored in the wake of the tsunami of crazy we’re just getting to know. It’s not new to her family. She’s been like this for years…ever since her husband met her, ever since her children were born.
I think that’s one of the greatest, boldest, most realistic aspects of this show: the way Tara’s family copes with their situation. And that’s just it…they cope. As best as they can. Her husband, played by John Corbett, is the coolest cat in the world. He doesn’t fight the tide, just treads water as he averts the flirtatious affections of Alice or the machismo threats of Buck. He loves his wife, Alters and all. Doesn’t mean he doesn’t get pissed or want to fix what’s wrong. It just means that he’s in it for better or worse. Period. Max is Tara’s greatest champion. Without ever beating this point into our brains with preachy dialogue, we understand that Max is the reason that Tara isn’t wearing Hefty bags and pushing a shopping cart down alleys while fighting back her Alters alone. How many people living on the streets are there because they have no Max? No champion to help them? Or, more accurately, no Max with insurance to cover the cost of their treatment?
Tara’s children, Kate and Marshall, both have a special place in my heart. Played respectively and wonderfully by Brie Larson and Kier Gilchrist, they are testaments to the resiliency of youth. This is the life they’ve always known and these are the parents (and Alters) they’ve got, like it or not. They’re acerbic, angry, resigned, embarrassed, coping with the peaks and nadirs of adolescence while contending with the ridiculousness of what they’ve come to view as mundane. Or at least par for the crazy course. Of course they’re rebellious and belligerent and desperate to have a normal life. But they also know that this is the hand they’ve got and, blow-ups and tantrums aside, they love their mother, fractures and all.
Another wonder of this show is, again, the subtle commentary that strikes deep without offputting preachiness. The show kicks off with us learning that Tara’s Alters are starting to resurface now that she’s decided to go off her medications because of how they leave her feeling non-functional. These anti-psychotic medications that doctors dole out to their patients are unmerciful Catch-22s in pill-form. If you take them, you’re lethargic, you’re unfocused, you’re antsy, you’re hungry, you’re all variety of side effects printed in super-tiny font for three pages of medi-babble. If you don’t take them…you’re catatonic, you’re talking to god, you’re telling ‘Nam war stories while lighting your farts of fire. So what do you choose? Crazy? Or a medicated fugue that passes as “normal” while it ravages your liver in ways worse than a constant IV drip of grain alcohol?
And now we get to the best part of this show: Toni Collette. I adore Toni Collette. I think she’s one of the most marvelous Australian exports EVAR. Definitely way better than Vegemite. In fact, I don’t ever think I’ve seen her give anything less than a stellar performance, no matter what she’s in. She kills as Tara. And all the others. This is the keystone. This premise could have gone completely shazbot if the wrong person had been cast to play Tara. Collette slam-dunks this role with fierceness and compassion. You believe her as all of her Alters. Even more importantly, you believe her as Tara. She is wonderful, and most definitely deserving of the Emmy she won last year for this role.
So there you go. If you haven’t seen United States of Tara yet, the first season is now on DVD. Check it out. I’ve already added it to my wish list, and I can’t wait to see the second season. If it’s anything like the first, it’s going to be more wonder than one person(ality) can stand.