I recently binge watched United States of Tara. I had heard of it from a friend a few years ago, but that was during my no tv/no internet cultural hiatus so I had kind of forgotten about it. But when I saw it on Netflix I remembered that that particular friend had fantastic taste (she’s the only other human with whom I have exchanged Twin Peaks quotes for a good solid hour, for example) and I clicked on it. And it was bloody fantastic. But it’s the kind of show that gets in your head and under your skin and creepy crawls around in there for a while. I’m still getting over it, actually.
So, brief rundown: Tara is an artist, wife, and mother of two teenagers in Overland Park, Kansas (a town which I can testify looks nothing like it does on the show – it’s way sadder in real life). She has dissociative identity disorder, formerly known as multiple personality disorder. So Tara is also Alice, the 1950s June Cleaver-only-more-psycho housewife, T., the sixteen-year-old juvenile delinquent nymphomaniac, and Buck, the beer drinking, motorcycle riding, Vietnam vet who makes the whole family take up bowling. The show is basically about the family dealing with her illness and its escalation, trying to come to terms with all the different personalities’ roles in their lives, and attempting to keep the personalities from destroying each other and Tara. It sounds trite when I put it that way, but trust me, it’s amazeballs. The writing is top-notch, the cast is great, and it rapidly goes back and forth between hilarious and heartbreaking.
The series was created and mostly written by Diablo Cody (the genius writer who brought us Juno) and was produced by Stephen Spielberg. That should really be enough, shouldn’t it? But wait, there’s more! Tara is played by Toni Collette, who was in The Sixth Sense, Little Miss Sunshine, and Mary & Max. You know her, you just may not know that you know her, and I think she’s wildly underrated. She’s amazing in this role (roles? I don’t even know how to handle writing about a character that’s actually a bunch of characters). The actors who play the kids are pitch perfect, especially because both of them are a little twisted by the way that they grew up. Oh, and bonus: Patton Oswalt and fucking Eddie Izzard. Yeah. This show can do no wrong.
Dissociative identity disorder is a widely debated topic. Most psychologists and psychiatrists don’t believe that it really exists, and that if it does it’s culturally specific (much like ADD and autism). There’s never been a satisfactorily documented case of the disorder that wasn’t later proven to be something else, like schizophrenia or good acting. I am fascinated by serious mental illnesses. (And yes, I realize that this is a sick hobby. Don’t judge me. I mitigate my own psychiatric woes by constantly telling myself that it could be oh, so very, very much worse. Not the best mantra, but it works.) Syndromes that have a cultural element (often a language-related one) are my very favorite: Tourette’s, Cotard’s, and all the different flavors of aphasia.
And often, on film, these diseases are portrayed as overblown or cartoonish. Sometimes they’re just plain incorrect, and that furthers bad stereotypes. But with something like dissociative identity disorder, which no one really understands or has seen, there’s a little bit more wiggle room. While lazy screenwriters can and have used this device for easy comedy fodder (Me, Myself, and Irene – barf, such a horrible movie) a character like this can also be artfully or creepily employed (spoiler alert – Fight Club, Primal Fear, Identity). So the versatility of characters with the disorder seems endless, but must be weighed against reality, which is interesting to me because there’s no concrete reality to measure by. It’s a logistical ouroboros and I love it, when it’s done well.
Also, can I just say that Toni Collette is a fucking ninja? Her transitions between personalities are subtle (a mere blink, nod, and deep breath) and then she’s completely someone else. The voice, the dialogue, the body language – one of them is even left-handed while all the others are righties. Watching it happen, I could suspend disbelief completely and didn’t get taken out of the story (and after a couple of episodes, you’re so used to it that you don’t even really see it anymore) but I kept thinking how hard that had to have been on her as an actor. To wrangle all these very different characters in such rapid succession must have felt like making five movies all at once. She was probably exhausted. Brava, madam. I am thoroughly impressed.
So, yeah, go watch The United States of Tara. It’s on ye olde Netflix. There are only thirty-six episodes, so you should be able to gorge on it pretty quickly. (Why are all the best shows embracing this British-style short season lately? Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s great that they can spend more time and money on each episode, but when they get cancelled I feel cheated. Cheated, I say!) It’s hypnotic, and by the end of it you’ll feel a little nuts, but it’s totally worth it. You have been warned. You’re welcome.