Saturday, May 28, 2011

Classic TV: United States of Tara

The Blogger grew up in a house with several women. As is common with ethnic families, several generations of the same family lived in the same home. No one thought to move out except to get married. Consequently, the Blogger counts amongst the people who were around during his childhood two parents, two siblings, two grandparents, three aunts, the housekeeper and an assistant. Even after moving across an ocean, the Blogger still had numerous relatives come to visit for several weeks at a time, and some lived with us for several months. Space has always been at a premium. This experience is uncommon to the West and particularly absent from television. 

Showtime’s poison-tipped but strangely loving comedy United States of Tara manages to accomplish the astonishing feat of having several women live in the same home while not adding any additional bodies. Created by Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody (Juno), the series focuses on a perfect nuclear family consisting of one man, one woman, one daughter and one son.

As is evident, this is no average nuclear family. Tara (Toni Collette) has been happily married for many years but also has at least three multiple personalities that arrive unannounced at triggering events. “T” is a typical teenage girl with battitude to spare and urges her ever-patient husband Max (John Corbett, perennially playing the nice guy to colourful women) to sleep with her because “it’s still your wife’s body, she won’t mind”. “Alice” is a stereotypical 1950s housewife, replete with conservative values but with a backbone and constitution that makes Sarah Palin look like a Planned Parenthood educator. “Buck” is a trucker and a stereotypically boorish redneck. At some point in the second season, Tara reads an influential psychiatry textbook and cultivates the personality of its author, “Shoshanna”, a Jewish New York shrink fresh out of the 1970s. Later on, she resuscitates her long-repressed childhood other, “Chicken”, who is five years old. 

Did I mention that the daughter, Kate, graduates high school early and dresses as an Anime comic book warrior princess to fulfill comic nutters’ fantasia online for cash? And that the son, Marshall, is gay? Tara’s sister Charmaine is promiscuous and perennially jealous that she’s lived in her mentally and emotionally unstable (but highly functional) sister’s shadow. When Charmaine is getting married while pregnant to another man’s baby, she wails that it’s finally time people noticed her and that “these normal people are making room in their lives … for me!!!”. 

In an episode of the equally manic British series Absolutely Fabulous, the unstable mother says to her daughter, “normal is what you know”. It’s all quite literally relative, isn’t it? It appears that this definition of “normal” is too intense for some, as Showtime announced this week that despite respectable (for cable) ratings and a boatload of prizes for star Toni Collette, including a richly-deserved Best Actress Emmy for one of the single most complex seriocomic acting performances in television history, they have elected to cancel the series. And yet Jersey Shore, Dancing with the Stars and Real Housewives of Turgid Sloth or whatever it’s called will all continue to flourish. For shame.

A night out with the wife and her three
personalities, who time-share her body
United States of Tara is notable not just for being madly comic in the same vein that Modern Family is, but also for showing us fundamentally difficult or unlikeable characters attempting to deal with the lot they have in life. Be it malaise, chronic dissatisfaction, or flat-out challenging circumstances, this is a family that by all accounts should have imploded years ago, with each member having written separate books on their collective ordeal. Instead, they communicate with each other honestly without being too hurtful, and they face the downright unglamorous details of their messy lives. In other words, these folks deal. That’s it. There are no giant revelations that clean up all details. Tara will never be entirely well. Max will suffer and put up with her psychosis and try to see her for anything more than a collection of distaff visitors sharing the same vessel. Charmaine will never stop talking about and attempting to flout her own self-importance. Marshall must find a way to be out and proud and define himself without labeling. And Kate will resolve not to do what every woman dreads by turning into her mother or, in her case, all of her mothers. And yet it’s still funny as all hell. 

This series is perhaps the dark underbelly or black sheep cousin to Modern Family (imagine the cross-over if they were indeed related!), but it is never less than loving to even the most perplexing behaviour. If nothing else, the series will forever be remembered as a glowing showcase for Toni Collette’s unassailable acting forte.

United States of Tara is currently completing its third season, and its first two seasons comprising 24 episodes is available to rent or own on DVD and Blu-Ray. This will be remembered, due to its sudden demise, as one of the all-time darkly comic masterpieces. Reaction has been immediate, as a Facebook page has sprung up with the goal of imploring Showcase to save the series and renew it for a fourth season. There's even an online petition, for which the Blogger has signed up. Maybe the next time you see your family, at least you will be able to look at them the same way we all see others, and say to yourself, “thank God my family isn’t like that!”
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