[This is only my second attempt at writing about a TV show, so please excuse my clumsiness and/or stupidity]
The new TV show “The United States of Tara” is a huge success, as far as I am concerned. As I type this short piece, I am watching episode three, delighted by every second of it, as I was delighted by every second in the previous episodes. It is a success in every possible way. The writing is delicious, getting so many pitches just right, as when Kate’s husband talks about the “big diff”, or when having a scene involving both T’s 1970’s hipster jargon and Kate’s 2008’s jargon: Diablo “Juno” Cody’s writing is always clear, always on point, but it would not work as well with actors less great than the cast of this show. The acting is the main selling point. Tony Collette is as good as we’ve come to expect of her, but Keir Gilchrist, who plays Tara’s son, is absolutely astonishing. The premise of the show is easily described: Tara Gregson, who works as a painter of nursery room murals, is a mother of two kids and suffers from D.I.D., dissociative identity disorder: she has multiple personalities which she calls ‘the alters’.
So far we’ve encountered three of them: there’s T, a sixteen year old would-be punk, trapped in this middle-aged woman’s body. She can be rude but she’s actually very friendly and warm. The exact opposite is Buck, a male Vietnam vet, who likes to shoot guns and get into a fight. And then there’s Alice, a 1950’s woman, who appears to be a Super-mom, albeit fitted with 1950s ideas of sex (although she is learning) and morality. Tara is married to Max (played by John Corbett, a.k.a. Aidan from SatC), who is (I think) a gardener, and the weakest character of the whole show, so far. He is little more than a prop in this story: very friendly, very patient. He has trouble resisting the sexual advances of the two female alters, but other than that we don’t get much of him except indulgent smiles and sighs. The Gregsons have two kids: a son, Marshall, and a daughter, Brie. Brie’s your typical teenager, rebelling against her parents (T, of course, is exempt from teenager derision). She is blond, pretty and thoroughly unremarkable. Like her father, she is little but a foil to demonstrate the dynamics of Tara and her alters. Marshall is a closet homosexual 14 year old. He is shy and has just fallen in love with what appears to be a homophobic Christian jock. His character is the only one in the family which is interesting even when not interacting with Tara.
At this early point there is little I can say about the show that is less trite than the previous two paragraphs. I will, however, state what fascinates me about the show, maybe that’s more interesting. I read Tara as a sort of anti-Hulk, or a female Hulk. Now, from our embarrassing comic knowledge we all know about Jennifer Susan Walters, a.k.a. She-Hulk. That character, who chose to keep the Hulk shape, is an endless source of discussions about women and power and feminism. You can go to your local MLA archive for more and smarter work on the She-Hulk. Tara is different in many respects. She does not have superpowers, in the sense of super-human powers (yes there are a couple of classic and not so classic characters who share that with her but we’re comparing her to Hulk now) and she does not prefer to stay in her other state(s). She is closer to the original Hulk, the incredible one. Bruce Banner turns into Hulk when he’s angry just as Tara turns into one of her alters when she’s under stress. She cannot control this and she’d rather just be Tara, just as Mr. Banner’d rather stay himself. Her alters, while not equipped with superhuman powers, can be seen as superpowers in the sense that they represent the ‘shortcomings’ of any regular mom.
Alice is a perfect cook, she can talk and soothe mad teachers and suspicious parents and she keep the house in tip-top shape in the most efficient way possible. T covers a different area of trouble: the teenage child. T can effortlessly em- and sympathize with Brie, she knows what the girl is thinking or feeling because she thinks and feels it as well. Buck, finally, represents a third, and largely underrated area of expertise: when a woman ‘needs to be a man’. We encounter Buck for the first time when Tara witnesses Brie’s Goth boyfriend hit her. When Tara tries to confront him, she fails and this triggers Buck’s appearance, who, in the course of this episode, engages the boyfriend in a fistfight, thus ‘defending Brie’s honor’. The alters are also different in appearance from Tara, although just in the way they are dressed and made up. So, having brought up some similarities to the incredible green guy, why’d I call Tara the anti-Hulk?
My reading stems from the standard reading of Hulk, who is generally read as representing the repressed part of the human character, in Freudian terms: the id, yadda, yadda (for smarter comments, again, do consult the MLA). If Hulk is the id, Tara’s alters could be seen as the super-ego. Hulk is a way for Banner to break out of his mold (the genre expression “mild-mannered” has multiple layers, after all), whereas Tara’s alters are a way of breaking into the mold (also, remember Marcuse’s modifications?). They are her way of conforming to the gender expectations, providing three facets of the perfect wife, the roles she is supposed to play; yes, they are clearly essentialist, but then they’re supposed to be, they are, as I said, not fully formed characters, but gender roles, informed by cultural parameters. The way they interact with their environment speaks volumes of the contradictions inherent in such roles.
There is a limit to this, however. Through all the characters and their interaction a simple moral line is threaded, but there is a lot of promise, especially if we look at fields like heteronormativity. Another intriguing tangent of the whole set up is sexuality. There’s not just Freud/Marcuse, as mentioned. Clearly, the extent to which sexuality is foregrounded almost asks for us to include Reich, doesn’t it? Not so far, however, but the potential’s there. All the characters develop a sexual relation of sorts with Max, their bodies, although they all share a body with Tara, appear to have a different sense of body-ness. This includes a wide range, from the different gait of the four characters to Buck’s declaration that his penis had been shot off in ‘Nam. Sadly, there, too, is a limit to the reflection. Health, height, strength and other things are a given. Still, to wrap this pointless blather up: there is a lot of promise in the “United States of Tara”. As it is, it’s enjoyable and fascinating. It could be great but we’ll see about that. It’s worth at least taking a look.