United States of Tara made quite a splash for Showtime when it premiered. It was [and is] the first television series to be built around a character who suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder [formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder]. While the Diablo Cody-created series is quirky fun in its original weekly format, the storytelling seems even stronger when viewed on DVD – and if you thought the show was different during season one, well, it gets really weird in season two!
At the end of the first season of United States of Tara, the Gregson family was having a fun evening at the local bowling alley while Tara’s five alters [alternate personalities watch from the periphery]. Now, several months later, season two opens with the family looking on as Tara dumps her alters’ wardrobes into a Goodwill bin. They haven’t appeared since the end of season one and Tara is oddly hopeful that they are gone for good. Of course, if they were, there wouldn’t be a series, but…
The secret to Tara’s alter-free period comes from a new regimen of meds that seem to have given her back her life without causing any major problems in terms of side effects. Unfortunately, her happiness is short-lived and things get even weirder than they were in season one.
How much weirder? Okay, fair enough… silly question.
Let’s begin with a neighbor’s suicide – leaving the Gregsons to look after his home until his family can dispose of it – and Buck reappearing and having an affair with a bartender named Pammy [Joey Lauren Adams and move onto Tara’s [Toni Collette] sister, Charmaine [Rosemarie DeWitt] becoming engaged to Nick [Matthew Del Negro] and then learning she’s pregnant – and the baby isn’t his! Then there’s Max’s [John Corbett] decision to buy the house and flip it – while the house, the interior of which looks like something from seventies, prompts memories of the Bicentennial Fourth of July and a woman named Mimi in Tara.
Then there’s Marshall’s [Keir Gilchrist] sexual identity crisis, which leads to experimentation with Courteney [Zoisa Mamet], a girl from school – and Kate’s [Brie Larson] getting a job with a collection agency and becoming friends with Lynda [Viola Davis], one of the people she’s sent to collect from – and becoming the avatar of a seventies comic book character called Princess Valhalla Hawkwind.
So far, so weird. Now then, about one of Tara’s new alters [she gains two, this season], Shoshana, who’s not only a psychologist, but puts Tara in the unique position of co-consciousness that allows them to communicate! Then there’s Max’s arrest for aggravated assault; Alice’s bombshell return and the introduction of Chicken – and the secret of Mimi. Also, Tara’s parents [Pamela Reed and Fred Ward] visit and the Gregsons get a visit from Family services – immediately following a tornado!
Overall, the second season of United States of Tara can best be described chaotic. Stuff happens – by the boatload. Throughout, though, the show always feels very real – if very darkly comic – because the characters are very grounded in reality. While Tara’s new alters may be a breakthrough that will help her piece together the causes of her disorder – and, ultimately, integrate her personalities back into a unified whole – the process takes a toll on her family.
Max, who has been as supportive and tender as it’s possible for anyone to be, finally cracks and lashes out; Marshall struggles with his sexual identity and his place in the family; Kate finishes high school early and enters a ‘real world’ she is not only unprepared for, for that also prompts her to make rash decisions [like a wealthy much older boyfriend], and Charmaine struggles to accept what’s going on her sister’s life, while also trying to figure out how she can deal with her fiancé, Nick, and her ex, Neil [Patton Oswalt] – to whom she finds herself still attracted.
If anything, the writing is more savage in season two. Souls are laid bare and then flayed. Life goes on – but in strange ways – and the characters respond in an equally strange manner. Still, because series creator Diablo Cody has made sure that everyone in the writers’ room has done their homework in DID, very little of the proceedings feel like a cheat [okay, I found it a bit difficult to accept Max having a one-stand with the same woman with whom buck had an affair – but I found her plea to buck, in a roller rink, oddly poignant].
If anything, season two of United States of Tara is better than season one – which I gave a grade of A+. Sadly, the features on the second DVD set don’t amount to much: a series of five-minute interviews with the principal cast and viola Davis. There’s nothing of any real substance there, so it would be better for the set if it had only contained the actual episodes.
Grade: United States of Tara: The Second Season – A+
Grade: Features – D-
Final Grade: A-