When it was originally on: 2009-2011
Original network: Showtime
Where you can stream it now: Hulu or Showtime
Had I seen it before: Nope.
What IMDb says: A woman struggles to find a balance between her dissociative identity disorder and raising a dysfunctional family.
Why I picked it: I needed premium cable shows outside of HBO, and those are few and far between, especially in the half-hour world. United States of Tara had a relatively short run compared to its other Showtime counterpart on this list, Weeds. But yet I still hear people talking about it. Toni Collette’s performance in particular is still talked about, and even won an Emmy for this show’s first season.
What I liked: I liked damn near everything. There’s an intriguing premise. There’s also enough acting and writing prowess to keep the show feeling grounded even though that premise could’ve been trite or silly in the wrong hands. There’s ALSO enough exposition to get me invested but enough loose ends to keep me guessing about how the series will unfold.
It would be so easy for this concept to devolve into a Transparent scenario that becomes more about how Tara’s disease makes life hard for the family with virtually no empathy for Tara herself. But the pilot does a great job of balancing this. We can see how hard it is for Tara to connect with her family and how bad she feels about it. We can tell how difficult it is to think about her husband having sex with her body while one of her alternate personalities is in control.
But yet we ALSO understand how hard it is for her children and husband to pretend the alternate personalities don’t bother them. You can tell that it’s not really fair for Tara’s children to have to put up with this, but and you empathize with how powerless they must feel. They’re trying to be patient and empathetic, but you can feel the tension bubbling underneath the surface. Both the acting and writing is strong enough to keep the show feeling grounded in spite of a premise that could’ve been trite or silly in the wrong hands.
I also love the strong sense of family that permeates this show. These are just four people who would never have chosen to live together doing the best that they can. They protect each other, and I absolutely LOVE what they’ve done with Tara’s son, Marshall. They zeroed in on just a few odd character quirks that let an audience paint a full picture. He’s reading while his dad and “Buck” (one of Tara’s personalities) go shooting. He chooses Thelonius Monk of all things to drown out the noise Tara/her personalities’ meltdowns so the neighbors don’t hear. The pilot doesn’t spend a lot of time on Marshall, and yet I feel like I understand him. I even understand him enough that when he attacks Kate’s crappy bf at the end of the pilot, I enjoy the comedic effect of it.
There’s also very subtle references to the different things that Tara’s family has tried in order to keep her personalities in check, but it all comes out in a very organic way. It’s things like her husband saying “Don’t coddle her, we talked about this to Marshall” or Kate mentioning that “Mom went off her meds.” All of this tells us that Tara HAS sought some kind of help from mental health professionals, which helps prevent the audience from saying “but why can’t she just go to a psychiatrist about this?”
Another thing this pilot does well is hint at a personality without us seeing that personality. The notion that we haven’t yet been acquainted with all of Tara’s alternate personalities is a huge motivator to keep watching, especially since Collette’s commitment to each one is so much fun to watch. There’s at least one more we don’t know yet, and who the hell knows.
What I didn’t like: I kind of wish they either a) hadn’t introduced the sister character at all or b) had done a better job of developing her. Tara, her husband, and her children are so well done, both as individuals and as a family unit. We could’ve waited until the second or third episode to introduce Tara’s sister and this pilot wouldn’t have lost anything. Instead we get some dumb comments about how Tara might just be faking it, but not a full-on character. It’s also still a little unclear as to how Tara’s sister fits into the overall family dynamic. Does she pop in occasionally or regularly? Does she often spend time with the whole family or just Tara? No one knows.
Do I want to watch Ep. 2: Absolutely! It’s rare to find a half-hour show that still feels substantive enough to avoid network comedy territory without falling into the sort of slice of life not-really-funny territory that HBO and FX seem so fond of. I’m looking forward to watching more.