Sunday, February 01, 2009

United States of Tara, "Work": Cereal drama

Spoilers for tonight's "United States of Tara" coming up just as soon as I put on my mandatory 15 pieces of flair...

"The weird thing is, is I kind of feel like everyone has it. I mean, over the course of a day, how many different women do we have to be? Work Tiffany, or sexy Tiffany, or dog owner Tiffany. It's hard, right?" -Tiffany St. John

I want to start off this review with one exchange that I left out of the original transcript of my interview with Diablo Cody, because it refers specifically to a scene in this episode I wasn't too happy with: Kate's new boss Gene (Nate Corddry) seemingly impressing her with an ash-covered visor from the Barnaby's restaurant that was at Ground Zero -- even though, as Gene admits, he wasn't actually there on 9/11. It seemed like the exact kind of cheap-shotting I was talking about being afraid of in last week's review; what's an easier target than the manager of a chain restaurant in Kansas?

Here's our exchange from the middle of the interview:
When Nate Corddry does the 9/11 thing, that was maybe the one part in the four episodes where I said to myself, "That's a little bit easy." I mentioned this to a friend and he said, "You're just sensitive to it because you're from there. Maybe somebody from Kansas would be impressed by him taking out the hat, even though he wasn't there."

I don't know if Kate was necessarily impressed. Brie plays it very well, because we were always worried about that. We said to Brie, "Kate is, obviously, very intelligent, so we have to think about why would she be attracted to this guy, who is clearly very dense, and very provincial. So we have to think about ways to make him seem a little dangerous and a little attractive." So he pulls out the cigarettes, and he says, "I work hard, and I play hard," and he implies that, behind the scenes at Barnaby's, it's kind of a party. I think that's more what she was drawn to -- the idea that there was a world outside of her house. She's trying to escape.

I don't know that she was necessarily impressed by the visor. I wrote that moment -- that, along with him showing off his office, which is obviously not impressive, either -- I wanted to show how limited he was in his worldview. And if he becomes a part of Kate's life, how is someone like this going to react to something as truly as shocking as Tara?

So we're not just supposed to take him as this oblivious clown?

Not necessarily. I always think of him as Kate's escape hatch. He is her outside world, weird as it may be.
I obviously haven't seen where this character and his story is going (I've only seen one episode past this one), but I'm not totally convinced. Again, it seems like an easy toss at an inviting target, and if the concern about Cody is that the show is going to disappear down the hipster-than-thou drain -- or, worse, start reflecting some of Alan Ball's more irritating qualities -- then this could be our first warning.

Then again, this episode also introduces us to Tara's new best friend -- only friend, really -- Tiffany St. John, the overly chipper VitaSelf saleswoman (and boss of Tara's sister Charmaine) who just can't wait for Tara to paint a mural in her condo. Tiffany, with that name, that hair, those two yappy dogs, and all the power of positive thinking slogans she tosses around, could very easily be another caricature and another easy target. But instead, she turns out to be kind of cool. She may have too many affectations, and her attempt to compare her life to Tara's may be terribly reductive, but she's making an effort, she seems to genuinely like Tara, and Tara likes her. When the character was introduced, I braced myself for what was coming, and was pleasantly surprised.

And I've spent so much time on these two outside characters, in the middle of discussing an episode that's largely about Max and Tara's sex life, because it's so obvious by this point how badly Tara, and Kate, and everyone in the family needs to make some outside connections to cope with what Tara's condition is putting them through.

Kate needs a place to go where she doesn't have to guess which personality her co-workers will be displaying on any given day. Max needs his buddy Neil to vent about the problem of being attracted to two of your wife's alter egos. And while he's not attracted to Buck, you can see that even their interactions are something of a relief. He gets along with Buck, and the lack of attraction from either party means Max never has to worry about what kind of guilt trip Tara will lay on him later.

Tara doesn't get to interact with the alters -- doesn't even know what they do, where they know everything she does -- and has a strained relationship with Charmaine, and she badly needs a friend, preferably one who only ever sees her as herself.

Marshall's crush on Jason the sweet but hard-core Christian jock (played by Andrew Lawrence, the youngest of the Lawrence brothers) has less to do with a desire to get away from his mom's condition -- he seems the most accepting of it of anyone in the family -- but there's an element to wanting what you can't have that runs through everyone's story this week.

Neil has it all wrong when he talks about how great it must be for Max to have the marital equivalent of the Kellogg's variety pack. What Max has is a bunch of flavors he's not allowed to eat, and one that won't let itself be eaten if it even suspects he's been fondling the other boxes. And that's rough.

As we're getting further and further away from when I initially saw these episodes (next week's is the last I got in advance), I'm going to move straight to the bullet points:

• Here we get our first glimse of Tara's therapist, played by Valerie Mahaffey, who has plenty of experience playing characters in need of therapy themselves. I liked the unspoken tension in the therapy scenes, how it's clear the doctor doesn't approve of Tara's decision to go off the meds but is trying to hold her tongue.

• Do you think Buck actually has the active sex life he boasts about -- including getting crabs from the woman at the bowling alley -- or is that just as much of an invention of Tara's imagination as Buck's time in Vietnam and the explosion that took away "his" equipment?

• I like how this episode undercuts the pretentiousness of Marshall and his best friend when it becomes clear how badly both of them want to get cast in the school's production of "Grease," even as they're trying to act above such a popular, predictable choice.

• Whatever my concerns about the 9/11 scene, Nate Corddry did make me laugh as Gene gave Kate the tour of Barnaby's, including the pizzazzing station and "That's Grambo, he has a glass eye."

What did everybody else think?


Anonymous said...

I just assumed that Corddry's character was supposed to come off as an oblivious Michael Scott type with the 9/11 hat. I really didn't read as much into it as Diablo Cody claims to have been trying to get across in regards to provincialism, etc.

Anonymous said...

I thought this episode aired last week? I saw the fourth one tonight.

Anonymous said...

Hated hated HATED the Nate Corddry stuff. I got nothing but creepy/smarmy douche off the character and his inclusion feels like the first major misfire of this series. The daughter's attraction to him feels mystifying.

I'm not squemish about 9/11 stuff necessary, but the taste level was very low with basically nothing to compensate. It just seemed cheap in a way I was hoping this show wouldn't be.

me said...

I still think the writing is getting in the way of a potentially good show. It isn't the DID or the family dynamics, so much as the words that come out of their mouths.

gack said...

I really liked this episode, and how it delved a little deeper into Max ans Tara's relationship. As much as Max understands and supports Tara, it's got to be tempting to sleep with the female alters. After all, it wouldn't really be cheating, since it's really Tara, right? Of course "Tara" wouldn't be there, so to her, it really is cheating.

I think Buck's probably just making up his experiences. Underneath his bluster and bravado, he knows he's still housed in a female body, even if he likes to say that he's lost his junk in Nam.

If I were Tara, I would have punched Charmaine by now. She's just a piece of work.

Of all the characters, I'm totally in love with Marshall. Wanting to get in the school production of Grease and having a crush on the jock...just painful well played. I want to give him a hug and make him cocoa. Or chai.

Anonymous said...

I wasn't as into this one as I was the first two, but maybe that's because I watched those back-to-back on OnDemand. To the person who thought this week was the fourth ep., are you watching OnDemand? They're putting those up a week early.

And I didn't really like the Tiffany character. Everything she did was awkward, all the way down th the confession about being molested.

Rachel said...

My take on Buck's sex life was actually pretty literal. But I can be naive that way.

Buck introduced the topic with the caveat of how entirely wasted the woman was. And the way Max hurredly shut him down when Buck mentioned it sounded to me a little like "...and let's never mention it again." (After all, if Buck got crabs, then so did Tara).

Plus it felt kind like the payoff from a stealthy line last week. Tara was disappointed that "you all went bowling without me" and Max saying something like Tara wouldn't have wanted to be there because of the chick there that Buck "likes."

Alan Sepinwall said...

I'm not squemish about 9/11 stuff necessary

I should clarify that it wasn't the 9/11 subject matter itself that bugged me. It was, as the first anonymous noted, the Michael Scott vibe we got off the guy.

Anonymous said...

Once again I agree with most of your reactions.

I can see Kate seeing how lame her manager is while still being intrigued by him as a possible way to escape home life a bit. But she played that scene a little opaque, so I'm not yet convinced.

I couldn't put my finger on it, but I had a similar reaction to Tiffany. Like, obviously, comparing Tara's condition to a woman needing to play different roles in her own life is obviously offensive to someone suffering from a pretty debilitating mental illness. But she was so sincere that I felt like all was not lost...a little education and she could end up being actually supportive. It also may have been influenced, in a meta way, by the fact that the show itself is comparing Tara's DID to a woman having to play different roles in her own life. So...even though it's not something you should actually say to someone suffering from this disorder, in a way she was absolutely right.

I loved Max's interactions with Buck. I wondered the same thing about Buck's sex life! At first I thought he was actually hooking up with girls, then I thought, they could be false memories like his time in Vietnam. But then when he mentioned the crabs Max said "oh yeah I remember" which to me implies that he actually got crabs. Which means Tara got crabs. That has some pretty serious implications, I think, for their health, and for Tara's sense of safety, and for their relationship. Max can't have sex with his own wife's body when she's someone else, but her body has sex with other people when she's someone else? And do alters other than Buck have sex? With men? And then there's the possibility of the alters hooking up with people Tara knows other than Max. Which could become awkward. (I think I've seen that happen in other stories about people with MPD).

Little Andy Lawrence! Awesome.

Unknown said...

I thought that Max was maybe humoring Buck about the crabs.

At least I hope.

Unknown said...

On On Demand they have the next episode. Is this going to be a trend (like The Wire) or is it a mistake?

I'm enjoying this show although it has to be the longest 30 minute episode of any show I watch (in contrast to Secret Diary of a Call Girl which seems to fly by).

ElleBelle said...

This is my new favorite TV Show. I love it. I had a United States of Tara party this week and invited 3 of my close friends to come watch the episodes I had on demand.
Now I have people to talk about the show with.
I loved reading all your posts as well.
I think I'm in love with Max.
I love all the characters except Charmain and of course Nate. Every show has to have a couple freaks though. Kate is kind of snarky, but then again she is a teenager. Marshalls character is so sweet. He is a very good actor. T is hilarious. I really like Buck. I don't care that much for Alice other than when she talked to Marshall's teacher and put him in his place.
I hope there is a lot of good stuff in store for this season. I am already hoping for a second season.