The United States of Tara – The Good Parts
(Not so much a review of this weeks ep as it is a retrospective of the season that it wrapped up)
United States of Tara was for two years a show that I would happily sit through were it on in front of me, but one that I never found myself overly compelled to view each week on the dot of release (as I do say Game of Thrones now), instead allowing the episodes to clump until there was literally nothing else to watch. It was a clever enough comedy with a crazy concept and a charming-enough cast of characters, it was good television but nothing more and nor did it show any sign of wanting such. Then without warning something happened, the show took a hook turn three episodes into its third season and became absolute must-see TV; dramatically re-inventing itself without changing a single thing.
This third season of Tara has been a series of revelations, though none were plot based:
It was revealed that the shows wacky theatrical presentation of Dissociative Identity Disorder (each personality has their own unique costume, accent and set of props) can stand hand in hand with some serious psychoanalysis.There were a number of serious intellectual ideas being debated throughout the season, among them the question of whether or not DID was simply a splintering of the self or if the self truly does become just one of many. Though the show decided to deal with all these ideas by introducing Eddie Izzard’s university instructor Dr. Hateoras their delivery was never a lecture, nor did the show ever feel the need to throw long-winded terminologies into its famously brisk, biting dialogue, instead it chose to show us these ideas through the weeks plot. Rather than just telling us a slight story about sex or bowling it began to use its drama as a diagram.
The second revelation was that this show is in fact a drama. Yes it is billed as a comedy, yes it only runs twenty-two minutes and yes it gets as many laughs a week as the majority of NBC’s stellar sitcom block but no, Tara is not a comedy; at least, not anymore. The topic of mental illness is an inherently mature one and so it shouldn’t come as a surprise to us that the story of a mentally-ill mother could be dark and yet after two years of puns and punchlines it was quite a shock to see the show delving deeper and deeper into the abyss; so effective was it at allowing us to laugh with the victim back then and so effective was it at describing a deeply disturbed situation now. There were moments in the season that had me thinking perhaps the show had leapt further along the genre line than I had assumed, perhaps it had skipped drama altogether and landed instead in the realm of horror; invading spirits, rapists returned from the dead and knife-wielding, -pumpkin-headed monstrosities were only a few of the nightmares let loose and all in one episode no less.
Key to the shows success as a drama however was the revelation that we were watching a whole household of people who were as intimately deranged as Tara in their own ways, none more so than Max who has for so long been relegated to the dreamboat patriarch role; slapping his spouse back to sanity and serving his homosexual son red meat with a smile, the American dream. This season – and especially this final episode – showed us all the other sides of Max that have previously remained hidden inside his unscathed mind and though it was never rubbed in our faces we were also given his diagnosis. Modern-day Max was also shaped by a person from his past, his mother too was mentally-ill and he was tasked with caring for her since his father just up and left the pair of them. Just as Tara can never escape Bryce Max can never escape his mother, partly because he married her, and this psychological drama is just as fascinating to watch as any of the DID antics. Though all this said, the show does admittedly dip whenever it stops to deal with the romantic relations of either child or the external antics of Charmaine (Patton Oswalt’s Neil is however, always of great value) and this was one of the bumps that remained through this, the shows best season.
Of course Tara herself is the gel that holds all these individual elements together but this year more than ever she wasn’t a relate-able character, hell half the time she wasn’t even around, and yet it was strangely satisfying to see her take this final first step forward in her journey. It’s obvious that she will never be cured – ‘I know that I can’t just fix everything in a weekend’ – and its likely that she will never again be whole but she has survived this, battered and bruised, but she survived and from here everywhere is up. It was also nice to see the family unit dissolve in the naturalist of ways; these people have been held together by inertial bonds, they’ve wanted to escape for so long but simply couldn’t pull themselves away from this woman but now that she’s gone they are free to evolve as they will and that’s nice.
It’s a small and bittersweet satisfaction this finale – a part of me wanted to see her either go completely crazy or reveal that Bryce was her bodies way of finally ridding itself of these intruders – but like the small sliver of sun birthing over the horizon after a cold, deep night, its enough to get us through. And like at the end of such a day, when the dusk again brings dark, I will miss the late afternoon sun the most, that time when it burnt most brightly. The lack will be stronger now, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.