I stumbled on the first season of United States of Tara on Netflix, looking for a simple 30 minute show to while away some baking time, and ended up finishing the first season in just a few days (no baked goods were burned or disfigured during the watching of this show). I think I had originally heard of the show back in the day, or maybe saw a preview or ad, and I think I assumed it was a weird sketch comedy with Toni Collette filling drastically different character roles for skits. Little did I know it was a weird dramatic semi-comedy with Toni Collette filling drastically different character roles as a married woman with dissociative identity disorder (basically the current name and refined understanding of multiple personality disorder, for the uninitiated).
A couple months (or more probably years) ago I went through a phase of reading a long string of case study psych books. One of the more interesting books I read was When Rabbit Howls, a narrative written by the “troops” of a woman with dissociative identity disorder, with some input by her therapist. “The troops” being what she and her therapist came to call her other identities, because she had a hell of a lot of them.
One of the things about that book though, is that it is difficult to follow at times. It was maybe not the best initiation to the phenomena, but it was informative. I think it’s actually helped a lot to understand and really enjoy a lot of the nuance of Tara. One of the most striking parts of When Rabbit Howls was in describing the physical differences of the “alters” — I remember being so confused at the therapist’s description of physical changes coming about as a new alter takes control, and what I have been loving most about this show is that I totally see it now. Toni Collette does an amazing job of falling into each character in very distinct ways, not just in clothing and make-up, but in voice and embodiment. The way she carries herself as Tara is completely different from Buck, and completely different from Alice, and completely different from T.
Even more, while the alters at first seem wild and archetypal, they are absolutely distinct and whole characters. Even while the first season’s plot moves on to uncover the mysterious trauma that led to this split, and the viewer begins to learn the psychological function behind the new personalities (such as Alice stepping in when Tara feels she isn’t able to be motherly enough, such as when a teacher needs to be confronted or when Tara’s daughter needs to be reprimanded for sleeping around), they still remain different people with their own motivations.
The strongest element of the show, though, has to be Tara’s family support. Her husband and kids’ sense of routine in sharing a breakfast with T in the first episode is absolutely refreshing…Almost as refreshing as Buck cheering on Marshall as they defend Kate‘s honor. Even Tara’s sister Charmaine, who I thought would end up being a destructive whoreish force on the family, comes to a solid and comfortable place in the family setting (thank goodness for Buck the boobie buddy mellowing her out and getting her to really start to understand what’s been going on with Tara).
Most surprising, maybe, is the inclusion of therapists who are both competent and helpful and realistic. As Tara faces the reality of being terminated by one therapist as she is set to move on to a specialist, it’s a very sincere sadness and confusion we see in Tara as she learns to wrap her head around the “break up” with Dr. Ocean (seriously, what an awesome name for a therapist. I’m kind of sad they didn’t name the second Dr. Iceberg, though Dr. Holden is plenty appropriate in a different way). It’s a positive take on what the role of therapy is, and portrays it as a true working relationship, rather than just over-the-shoulder-judger or BFF-LPC.
I honestly can’t wait to start on seasons two and three.