Sunday, January 18, 2009

United States of Tara, "Pilot": Four-faced

Spoilers for the debut of "United States of Tara" coming up get my hair done up in samurai knots...

"Yeah, that is one weird thing." -Max

Because I wound up writing a Diablo Cody interview instead of a traditional review, I haven't really offered up an opinion on "United States of Tara" before now. The short, not-so-insightful version, is that I like it, but also understand why it really irritates some people (other critics, people who streamed the pilot).

Cody's dialogue will likely always be polarizing (though there's nothing in here on the level of the infamous "homeskillet" scene with Rainn Wilson at the start of "Juno"), Tara herself barely figures into the pilot, what we see of her "alters" so far makes them seem very broad, almost caricaturish, and because the family is so largely accepting of her condition, the stakes seem to be too low to sustain a series.

I get all that. But I don't mind.

Now, I'm coming at this having watched four episodes, not one. Some of the above issues are remedied in later episodes: there's more of Tara, there are (some) shadings to the alters, and you realize that the family's life isn't as mellow as John Corbett makes it out to be. But Cody's dialogue is Cody's dialogue (and as you may have noticed from my confusion during the interview, at least one of the other writers, Alexa Junge, is pretty good at mimicking her style), and even as we see more of Tara and learn more about the alters, it's still hard to shake the feeling that this is one long acting exercise for Toni Collette.

But again, I don't mind.

First, I like Cody's dialogue when she dials it back a bit from "honest-to-blog" levels. While all of the characters say clever things, I don't think they say them in the same voice. To me there's a difference in the structure and tone of something like Tara complaining that "I can't seem to micromanage my daughter's vagina" and Kate then telling Max, "I guess I should have let that fertilized egg implant itself in my uterus." They're both about female reproductive organs, and they're both fairly blunt, but I can't necessarily hear one coming out of the other's mouth, and vice versa. So mostly, I found it funny.

Beyond that, while the show is largely plot-less, I don't find the family's acceptance of Tara's condition to be a drawback. If anything, a show where they were still coming to grips with it, or a show where they tried to keep her condition hidden (ala, as my Canadian friend Rob Salem put it, "Bewitched" or "I Dream of Jeannie," or ala Diablo Cody's beloved "Small Wonder"), would get tired quickly. To bring in a comparison of a show I wouldn't have automatically thought of in the same breath as "United States of Tara," NBC's late, lamented "Journeyman" struggled in its early episodes because it had to go through the motions of having its hero, and then his wife, understand and accept that he was traveling back and forth through time. It wasn't until the time-travel became a fact of life -- when the fantastic became treated as the mundane -- that "Journeyman" really began to click, because, geez, how do you get through your day knowing that your husband could vanish into the past at any given moment?

Just because Max takes Tara's condition in the classic laid-back John Corbett fashion (if the dude could put up with Carrie Bradshaw's drama -- twice -- he can sure as heck handle Disassociative Identity Disorder) doesn't mean this life is easy for him. What do you do if your wife's body is coming onto you with the sex drive -- and personality -- of a teenage girl? How do you protect your gay son's feelings if his mother is prone to turning into a homophobic biker? What are the mechanics of life with DID like?

And speaking of which, my only knowledge of the disorder comes from TV and movies (and Grant Morrison's run on "Doom Patrol"), which means I basically know nothing about it. But it does make sense to me that the alters would in some way be stereotypes. Tara calls on them in times of stress, becoming teenaged T when she can't handle her parental responsibility, and Buck when she's feeling protective of her kids, but she hasn't been a teenager in a long time, and she's never been a Vietnam vet, let alone a man. I imagine her mind is filling in a lot of blanks with whatever knowledge Tara has, which is probably pretty scant.

There's also something to be said for holding the audience's hand a little bit with such a weird idea. Tara's family may be used to her, but we aren't, and so the characterizations of the alters are very broad, her physical transformation into them (the way her jaw re-sets itself when she becomes Buck, for instance) unmistakable, but that isn't always going to be the case, based both on what I've seen down the road and what Cody told me.

Anyway, that's me. While I have some issues here and there (some dealing with episodes down the road), for the most part I dug it.

What did everybody else think?


jcpbmg said...

i'm still on the fence- also i didn't think the dialogue was anything that distinct. Certainly nowhere near Juno or even ASP or Sorkin which she compared herself to.

In the Gilmore Girls and West Wing pilots the dialogue came on incredibly strong (which for many was a good thing) however in the Tara pilot the dialogue was rather normal and didn't have anywhere close to an atypical pace.

but gotta love the emergence of Rosmarie DeWitt- it's a shame she didn't stay longer on Mad Men (and that Standoff didn't work out)

lap said...

Just when I think that I can't like you more, you drop a Grant Morrison Doom Patrol reference...

One of the things I like so far is that Tara herself, seems very real and likable to me, so I'm not spending time longing for the alters to show their faces.

And while I do think the family's acceptance of the alters make sense, I did really like that moment when Tara enters the shower after T leaves and you can sense the relief. The alters might be part of the family, but they clearly aren't founding members. I get the feeling this show will make a solid Corbett fan of me once and for all.

The core characters seem sound and compelling, and I'm left interested in finding out more about Tara's sister's different attitude toward the situation, as well as more about the shed.

Joe Reid said...

I think I was more annoyed by the initial barrage of T's teen banter with Kate, but I came out of the pilot on the same level of liking the show despite its faults. And thank you for making the point about the alters being somewhat necessary stereotypes -- I do agree with that.

Anonymous said...

I've seen the first two episodes and I think your review summed it up nicely. It's not a perfect show, but there was something likeable about it and I'm intrigued enough to want to see more.

I also think besides being very obvious ways for Tara to deal with specific scenarios, her alters are a reflection of the rest of her family. Each member pretty much gets an alter who would be their ideal friend (Kate and T, Max and Buck, Marshall and Alice) and the their worst nightmare (Kate and Alice, Max and T, Marshall and Buck.)

pgillan said...

I haven't this show (and probably won't), but the phenomenon you're describing, where the family has already reached a certain level acceptance with her behavior, I tend to think of as the Bosom Buddies effect. By the second season, most of the cast knew they were men, and the cross-dressing had become a casual part of their life that was now taken for granted.

The best current-generation example has to be Monk, though. Early in the show, when Monk would declare the crime a murder, he'd get a lot of resistance. At some point, though, the rest of the characters came to realize, like the audience, that he was always right. When he says "It was murder," the captain-guy and all the cops step-to. That automatic resistance is a staple of this sort of show, and it's refreshing when one can do away with it.

Anonymous said...

Watched a few episodes and found it insufferable. Like the goth punk boyfriend, it tries so hard to be unique and edgy and clever that it really only screams "insecurity" over everything else. I can't stand posers.

Are the writer and actors collaborating in order to serve telling the story? Or is the "story" merely there so the actors and writer can show off as much as possible? All the creatives involved seem so preoccupied with garnering praise that they can't see the forest for the trees. Toni Collette shamelessly begs for Emmy recognition, not caring that there is no real story stringing together her acting vignettes, while Diablo Cody (SHE USED TO BE A STRIPPER, DONT FORGET THAT COLORFUL FACT EVER) once again stuffs each and every character with so much 'witty snark' that they can't be believed or sympathized with any more than an SNL skit. But Diablo gets to refer to (and shamelessly tries to create) pop culture references, so that's all that matters - to her at least. Even the multiple-personality premise of the series, which naturally should be rich with interesting perspectives, seems to have been selected to service Cody's and Colette's pressing inner needs more than having something to say as a story.

I think the reason they sent out four episodes is to try to get critics to the point in the series where Diablo wasn't the main writer, and a more structured and creative writer finally got some input. Maybe this happens in the middle episodes and these characatures will turn into characters, but the thought of suffering through more "Look-at-me!" episodes to get there doesn't hold much appeal.

Anonymous said...

I can't say I love it yet, but I'm certainly intrigued enough to keep watching. There are moments that made me chuckle, and I'm not really all that bothered with the dialogue (at least, not yet), and kind of agree with jcpbmg above that I'm not sure if I found the dialogue all that distinctive (again, at least, not yet.)

I always enjoy watching John Corbett, who always brings a sort of ease that I love in all his past roles, and this one seems to be no exception. And while I did find the alter egos somewhat overbearing at times and definitely cartoonish, I think Collette has kept them somewhat grounded despite how annoyed one might get with some of them (perhaps this has a lot to do with the actor herself).

Anyway, all in all, it is interesting enough to keep me around for a couple more episodes.

Anonymous said...

God, how awful this is. Brook Busey (yeah, I'm through using fake names of dumb people) is the most overrated hack in the world. JUNO was crap and watching this show was painful. I didn't think there coulda show worse than TRUE BLOOD, bot SHO found it well enough. It's sad, too, cause Toni is SOOOOO much better than this and most everything she has done lately.

Boricua in Texas said...

I did not expect to like it, and yet I liked it enough that I will give it a chance and keep watching.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Brook Busey (yeah, I'm through using fake names of dumb people)

Oh, I look forward to your complaining about the pretentiousness of Samuel Clemens, Archie Leach and Bernie Schwartz, because no one in the world of entertainment ever uses a pseudonym.

Anonymous said...

Great potential I thought. An ex of mine had a practice specifically focused on DID and a friends wife was fairly functional with DID.

I had a very angry reaction to both parents reactions to both their daughters sex scare and seeing her be physically abused. There was some vindication in Buck punching the boy later, but it was still too little too late for my blood.

But, reactions are good.


Boricua in Texas said...

There was some vindication in Buck punching the boy later, but it was still too little too late for my blood.

Oh, as a mother I could not agree more. I definitely would have yelled at the boy not to mess with my kid, regardless of whether it would embarrass my daughter. But maybe that's why I do not have DID, and Tara does.

Anonymous said...

Jury is still out.

Yes, there was some cringe-inducing dialogue. ('Muffins of triumph'?) And why was Tara recording the videotape of herself in the show's opening? If it turns out to be part of her therapy, that's one thing. If it turns out to be a gimmick for easy exposition, it's a bellweather of the sort of lazy hack writing others are ranting about in this thread.

Unknown said...

I liked it. I liked the "this is how our life goes"-ness of it, such as having to ask Buck to go to the ballet. John Corbett- who else could put up with so many people in his wife and take it in stride all the time? (I do feel sorry he gets in trouble for just kissing T, though. Shoot.) Poor Marshall when Buck walks in...

I like how the alters are there when Tara is having an issue. I don't know if this is how DID works in real life, if one comes out to compensate for the other, but I thought it worked well here.

I don't have cable so I won't be seeing other episodes (Netflix'd it) until the DVD comes out, but I'd check this out again.

And I had no issues with the dialogue. I liked it. It wasn't "honest to blog," it was pretty real. And if I'd been a snarky teen who was in need of the MAP and people found out, I probably would have said the same thing. Hah.

Linda said...

Everything you're saying makes sense, Alan, and yet I have no interest in ever watching it again. And that's after seeing "Juno" again and liking it somewhat more than I remembered, now that it's not a phenomenon being shoved in my face and I know I have to close my ears for the first fifteen minutes.

I understand your point about the alters being stereotypes for a reason, and maybe that's medically/psychiatrically valid, but...they still are stereotypes. It's still nothing I haven't seen before. It's still no better than watching Toni Collette play a tween in an "SNL" sketch, to me.

It's just that...watching the family members be so casual about a major mental illness makes them so impossible for me to relate to that I don't care about them. And I don't care about her, and I don't care about the alters, so there's nothing for me to grab onto. Her disorder is treated as a wacky predicament more than a compelling dramatic problem, to me.

With that said, the Cody dialogue is way less annoying than it was in "Juno." I find "Tara" dull, but I don't find it grating the way I do with much Cody stuff.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I look forward to your complaining about the pretentiousness of Samuel Clemens, Archie Leach and Bernie Schwartz, because no one in the world of entertainment ever uses a pseudonym.

To be fair, Mark Twain, Cary Grant, and Tony Curtis, aren't exactly names deliberately designed to make people do double takes and wonder, "Is that his/her real name?"

Anyway, this review was a fun read. I've never read a review where every single paragraph is structured around the premise of "Here's why I disagree with those who hated it."

Alan Sepinwall said...

It's rare that I review something that's attracted so many haters this early.

Anonymous said...

Maybe I'm easy, but I pretty much loved it. The dialogue was a far cry from Juno. Veronica Mars had more stylized language.

So far the draw--apart from the son being awesome; he has a Cabinet of Dr. Caligari poster!--is the acting. I'm particularly impressed with both kids' naturalism (because Toni Collette and John Corbett are expectedly great). And as long as Rosemarie DeWitt gets to hang around, I'll tune in.

Loretta said...

This is probably a personal pet-peeve, but I found the hardest scene to watch the recital scene.

From the fact that she was given the lead in the recital, I thought the audience was supposed to believe that the daughter (whatever her name is) was supposed to be a talented dancer. And she was *atrocious*. I danced for years, and most 9 year old ballet students at any school worth its salt can do far better than that abysmal performance. It was cringe-worthy.

I don't know why they didn't just give the daughter some other "talent" that was easier to fake if the actress can't cut it. It's easy to pretend to be a musician (close-ups of the hands) or painter (if you never actually show her painting and just show the completed works).

Of course, I'm sure most people who don't have experience with dance wouldn't recognize what an awful performance that was.

But to me, it just seemed like lazy casting. Even teenage beginners are better than that after about 6-12 months of training. If you want to cast someone who will be playing a dance student, hire someone who has taken at least one dance class in her life, which this actress looks like she has not.

Brian said...

Wait, the son is gay? Did I miss something in the pilot or did you accidentally reveal that based on viewing later episodes? I thought he was just an arty, effete kid.

Anonymous said...

Jennifer: “I don't know if this is how DID works in real life, if one comes out to compensate for the other, but I thought it worked well here.”

The thing is, no one knows for sure how DID “works”, so much so that many credible researchers dismiss it as a real psychological phenomenon altogether. One of the interesting aspects of it is that it seems to only occur in North America, the land most obsessed with fame, attention-seeking, and self-absorption.

If you’ve ever attended one of those hypnotist shows, where the hypnotist gets regular people to moo like cows or pretend to be John Wayne whenever they hear a whistle, you probably have some clue why some would fake DIDs for attention for years on end. It’s no coincidence that extremely extroverted, stage-craving people are the ones most easily “show hypnotized”, and willing to do extremely unbelievable things for prolonged periods on stage just to have eyes focused on them. I think credible research indicates DIDs is the same phenomenon taken to the extreme. (If you are going to argue that you went to a hypnotist show and know for sure that it was real, or worse, took part in one and insist you were under an irresistible spell, then we have nothing to talk about anyway, and you probably have a very elaborate myspace / facebook page devoted to yourself.)

Seen that way, it’s suddenly kinda funny that Cody and Collette chose DIDs as their theme, because it surrogates well for their own psychology of neediness.

Jennifer: “And I had no issues with the dialogue. I liked it. It wasn't "honest to blog," it was pretty real.”

It wasn’t as bad as Juno, simply because Cody got slammed for Juno’s pretentiousness and adjusted, but she still couldn’t help herself to another serving of ostentatious verbal garbage. Some quotes that screamed “WRITER!” from the first 5 minutes of this episode alone:

“ a gold diaper genie and a fresco depicting herself as a saint”

“I can’t micromanage my daughter’s vagina”

“Is anyone home? Marshall? Estonian cleaning lady?” -Would anyone with any manners at all not know their cleaning lady’s name, or refer to her out loud in that manner? Unless you knew a camera was on you and you wanted to be noticed?

“I been diggin’ in your closet for hours trying to get to Narnia…”

“Kill Pills” for day-after pills

“She went all CSI on your backpack”

“I’m all laminated baby!!”

“Drugs Not Hugs!!”

“Makes you look Porno” – I’ve heard this phrase before, and still think it tries too hard to be edgy and cool each and every time.

“Bring with.” – a phrase so “hip”, it’s hipper than Tara’s Muffin Top waistline.

“Hormones in that Cluck-cluck” – Really? Any human being out there, including tween girls, think “Cluck-cluck” is a cool way to say chicken? Instead of cringing overreaching hipster poser-ism? Can you really picture anyone saying “cluck cluck” out loud without being embarrassed by their own lameness immediately?

My guess is that Diablo’s first pass at writing is done pretty normally, with normal words and phrases uttered by the characters. She then goes back with a second pass that concentrates on eliminating boring old “nouns” and replaces them with “catch phrases”, and this takes the bulk of her time. So chicken becomes “cluck cluck”, credit cards becomes “laminated”, birth control becomes “Kill Pills”, etc. It’s pretty easy to do, so why she gets credit for being clever is beyond me, and must be done by people with very little language skills of their own. I think that is why the backlash against her was so sudden and fierce – those that recognized the trick couldn’t believe how much praise she got for such a lame parlor-level manipulation, while those who aren’t capable of seeing such slight-of-hand think she’s amazingly talented. Very similar to how polarizing David Blaine is to thinking versus believing audiences.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Wait, the son is gay? Did I miss something in the pilot or did you accidentally reveal that based on viewing later episodes? I thought he was just an arty, effete kid.

I didn't spoil anything. Marshall's gay, but the show goes out of its way to not use the word at any point, since the family treats it as yet another fact of life.

Bobman said...

Out of curiosity, to the folks complaining about the way the family handles the illness. How would YOU handle it if your mom or wife had this problem? Even if you don't believe in the psychological merits of the disorder, the show is fiction. In the fictional world of the show, this problem is real and tara suffers from it. If you're her family, you can abandon her, you can be miserable and stressed out all the time, or you can take it in stride. Just like a million other families do with more realistic disorders. While the dialog is obviously ridiculous, I don't find the family reactions all that unbelievable.

And overall I dig the show, for now at least.

Anonymous said...

I think I agree with you, Alan. It wasn't love at first episode, but I liked it. It stays in the rotation for now.

(I had no idea there were people who had a hate-on for Toni Collette).

Anonymous said...


I have only seen the pilot episode, but it seemed to me in that episode the alters were acting as plot mechanisms to overcome common family dysfunctions -- Daughter can't talk to her mom about sex (but she can talk to T), Mother can't convince daughter boyfriend is scum (but uses Buck to do so, because Buck is protective of the daughter). This is usually the function of an eccentric relative in movies and, in the TV of my youth, butlers/maids/nannies. The twist was novel but didn't seem to bring anything new to the table.

I agree with you that exploring the mechanics of living with the condition might be interesting, but I didn't get much indication that the show was interested in that. In fact, I was surprised how little the show seemed interested in any mechanics involving the management of the alters, like: how can Tara drive safely? How does she keep the alters from spending all her money? Or having sex with other people? Or buying drugs -- the drug line was played for laughs, but doesn't Tara recognize their presence means one of her kids must be using? "The Shed" seems more symbolic than practical.

My impression was that the family's lack of coping mechanisms was going to be the focus of the show, and that things aren't so rosy in Tara's household. But that seems like the least interesting/challenging story approach to pursue.

Unknown said...

Maybe I'm an exception, but I love it!

dark tyler said...

This was so shockingly empty that now I feel the need to go back and watch 'Juno' again. I feel I've done a huge mistake ("...Michael") in giving that movie 4 out of 5 stars.


Paul F said...

Just saw it. Not bad, but it needs to be funnier. I'll keep watching for now.

Also, Brie Larson looks very young to be playing Envy Adams in the Scott Pilgrim movie if Brandon Routh is Todd Ingram.

Anonymous said...

The Diablo Cody backlash seems to have taken on a life of its own. I wonder what people would think of this show if they were told it had been written by someone else?

Anonymous said...

Her disorder is treated as a wacky predicament more than a compelling dramatic problem, to me.

I don't think this show is supposed to be all that dramatic, nor should we expect it to be.

Isn't it classified as a comedy of some sort? Anyway, I enjoyed it enough to keep watching until they drag it on to the 30th season and they still can't figure out why they're all still 'lost'.