Monday, April 05, 2010

United States of Tara, "The Truth Hurts": Chasing Pammy

A review of tonight's "United States of Tara" - plus some guest commentary from Diablo Cody herself - coming up just as soon as my heterosexuality stresses me out...
"What you don't get is, people can have a hard time, and then they turn it around. People can change." -Max
"Yeah, people change. And then they change right back." -Neil
Okay, I have to admit that this one kind of troubled me at first - both that Tara would let Buck's relationship with Pammy run for as long as it did before trying to either stop it or tell Pammy the truth, and that she would then go over to Pammy's apartment in what seemed, based on the earlier scene with Charmaine and Ted talking about gay experiences, like an attempt by Tara to see how the other half lives.

I wrote last week about how I understood Tara's reluctance to tell Max (which predictably blew up in her face here when Pammy made a spectacle of herself at the ice rink), and even to an extent that she wouldn't be able to tell Pammy the whole truth upon finding out. (Pammy understands that Buck's not a man, but not that Buck isn't real.) But to let two weeks go by with Buck in the life of that woman and her daughters, and then to apparently take advantage of Pammy's ignorance to satisfy Tara's own curiosity? To me, when I first watched "The Truth Hurts," that bothered me a lot. Tara's not a perfect person, even when she's herself, but she never struck me as someone who would let others be hurt in this way.

So, since it was bugging me, I decided to go straight to the source and ask "Tara" creator/producer Diablo Cody for her take on the Buck/Pammy/Tara triangle. Here's what she had to say:
The story of Pammy and Buck is meant to illustrate that Tara is becoming increasingly co-conscious with the alters. Last season Tara had to piece together video and stories to figure out what the alters were doing. This season, she's more aware, as illustrated by the way she "fights" with Buck over who gets the body, etc. We thought about how it feels, physiologically, to have an affair with someone. You feel more attractive overall. You feel energized. You feel excited. Even though Tara isn't technically having the affair, she shares a body with Buck, who is. So she's feeling a lot of those warm fuzzies too. And though she knows it's wrong once she realizes what's going on, she's addicted to Pammy in a strange, peripheral way.

A DID patient told us about a time she'd impersonated one of her alters in order to gain more information about what the alter had been doing. So we just thought it would be interesting, dramatically, for Tara to break up with Pammy as Buck as a way of both protecting Pammy and gaining for insight for Tara. Plus, it's really funny when Pammy wails, "I never get the guy!" In this case, it's literal - she wants the guy, and what she gets is a suburban mom in drag.

Pammy is of course, always aware that Tara is biologically female. But Pammy is so damaged and insecure that even a transgendered *representation* of a "strong man" is the most comforting thing she's ever experienced. Real men have never come through for her the way Buck does. If wounded women like Pammy are willing to date ex-cons and abusers (and they are), I'm willing to believe that they would even date a man who wasn't a man at all. Pammy's in as much of a fantasy as Buck is.
As I've said in the past, my understanding of DID comes primarily from this show and a string of "Incredible Hulk" comics circa 1991, so the co-consciousness thing is something I'm learning as I go - and maybe something the show should have been willing to spell out a bit more now that it's starting to drive Tara's actions.

But seen in that context (and understanding that Tara's primary goal in going there dressed as Buck was to break up with Pammy), most of my problems with the episode go away - and, in fact, I start to become intrigued by the possibilities. If Tara starts to become more aware of what the alters are up to, and starts to feel some of what they feel, does that make her more complicit when they do bad things? Or is the opposite the case - that even when Tara is Tara, she's not wholly responsible for her own actions? And how is Max - who's already furious with the return of the alters and with Tara's deception(*) - going to react if the line starts to blur between his wife and the weirdos who regularly hijack her body?

(*) But how does he feel about the affair itself? There was talk last season about Buck having caught crabs from a woman at the bowling alley, and there was an open question as to whether this was just another part of Buck's fantasy life, along with his time in Vietnam. But his success with Pammy suggests that Buck certainly could have had a sex life before now. In which case, was Max - who got mighty peeved when it looked like T might hook up with some random guy - okay with that? Or can he handle it so long as his wife's body is only fooling around with other women?

Max's anger (and his subsequent beat-down of Sully) was a good moment for John Corbett, particularly after the earlier scene where Max tries to convince himself and Neil that everything's all better with Tara. Raised expectations lead to increased disappointment when the reality doesn't match your dreams, but it feels right to see that Max isn't just some smiling, ever-patient saint. He has his limits, and the Pammy thing has pushed beyond them.

Early on, before the spit hits the fan, Tara jokes that Marshall dating a girl makes sense on opposite day, and there's a lot of upside-down behavior in this one (Kate, for once, is the most normal, even if she spends half the episode baked). The Gregsons just want an uncomplicated life, but Tara's condition and the world around them aren't making it easy.

Some other thoughts:

• Even by the standards of both pay cable and this show, "The Truth Hurts" felt very sexually frank. Kate calls Tara "doable" and later explains "dogs in a bathtub" to Marshall (my advice: don't Google it for a fuller explanation). Marshall and Courtney experiment with each other in the rafters (Marshall, nervous and not particularly aroused, tells her, "You're very skilled.") And Tara, Charmaine and the gay neighbors try to coin a new name for the vagina ("cou-ton?").

• Patton Oswalt makes a welcome return as Neil and does a nice job delivering a twist on a familiar joke when he tells Max, "I don't want a terrific woman; I want Charmaine."

• Kate's friendship with Lynda still isn't really going anywhere (though I'm sure some viewers weren't displeased to see Kate dressed as Princess Valhalla Hawkwind), but it does add another interesting actor to the recurring ensemble with Joshua Leonard (from "Humpday" and also HBO's "Hung") as Lynda's trustafarian pal/pot connection Ricky. (Incidentally, who coined "trustafarian"? I first heard it on the short-lived ABC sitcom "It's Like, You Know..." in the late '90s, but I always assumed Peter Mehlman got the term from someplace else.)

• Sorry, Lionel, but I, for one, would rather see a play about a slutty dental hygenist than one about a doctor from olden times.

What did everybody else think?


Katie said...

I really liked this episode. I agree about Kate's story line not really going anywhere, which is a shame because I love her character. Thought it was very interesting/moving to see Buck crying in the mens room at the end of the episode, do you think he really loves Pammy?

ethan said...

Shaw had a grand entrance to the show (both the zippo scene and his part in op Awesome were ... awesome).
And he had a great exit, as the supposed perfect spy that ended up putting his own pain above his duty. The problem with Shaw, and I will borrow a couple of lines from a song Chuck used earlier in the season, is "the wretched hollow The endless in-between"

Had they kept Shaw around for 5 episodes or so and just used him for the spy plot this whole season would have worked fine. Where Shaw failed was when they used him as a LI/Confidant.

Water under the bridge though. Great end to a lousy arc, in my opinion, I m not into fleshing out the plot holes, there are plenty, I 'll just sit over here on my side of the fence and be happy the mess is over and we can all go back to the show we loved for 2 seasons.

Anonymous said...

ethan, who's shaw?

Decent episode.

It's kind of hard to care about the alters when your rooting for Tara to stay form but it would be interesting to see her completely adopt each personality into the Tara one and create a new complete mold.

Rich C. said...

Aww, I miss "It's like, you know..." Not the world's greatest sit-com, but it sure had potential.
Speaking of late-90's ABC, I still mourn the losses of "Buddy Faro" and original flavor "Cupid"


On topic, I haven't been watching USoT, but have been reading your write-ups. I may have to start checking it out.

lap said...

It felt a little weird to have so much heartbreak happen on the third episode of the season. Tara, Neil, Pammy- but I liked that Max was angry instead of heartbroken, and more angry that he would have to deal with something he was deluding himself into thinking was behind them, than over the actions themselves. Corbett is so good on this show. That moment Tara contemplated before the bathrooms really showed that Toni Colette is waaay beyond needing costumes to show the subtleties of the alters at this point. Wow.

JanieJones said...

I thought Max's anger was spot-on when it was revealed that Tara was had been transitioning. However, there was one thing that I could not connect-how did no one notice that Tara was gone for long periods of time? I know that in the 2nd ep.? she told Char that she had been out walking but how could Max not notice that his wife was gone? It would have been a big clue that something was awry.

Family members that have a member that suffers from a mental disorder often rejoice when it appears that they are "better."
It can be a very draining and distressing situation if the individual has setbacks. It was amusing when Max was calling the pharmacy for Tara's refills. He is desperate for his wife to stay on track.

I am enjoying Marshall's story line as he attempts to define his sexuality. I really like Gilchrist and his natural ability to embrace his role.

I love Viola Davis but I have no clue where the Kate line is going.

*Collette is fantastic (as usual) this season. I really root for Tara. Her recording sessions are in complete panic. It has heightened the emotion and fear of the realization that the alters have returned.

Also, compared to Nurse Jackie this season (which has been disappointing to a degree for me), U of T is the superior show, imho.

MrsB said...

This show just keeps on getting better.

I find myself actually liking Kate this season, though I really hated her and her story line last year. My husband got very excited when he though that the comic-character dressed Kate might be about to start a life of porn, lol.

I agree with the above poster - how did Max not notice Tara gone for hours at a time? Especially in the middle of the night? I'd certainly notice if my spouse was getting out of bed and leaving - or coming home at strange hours of the night. And if Tara can't control Buck taking over the body, why hasn't any of the family had a run in with Buck yet at home? He's obviously leaving the house and returning there if Tara didn't know where she'd been.

LA said...

I've been waiting for Max to get angry or... something. It wasn't really realistic how calm and rational he was last season about Tara's DID. I'm glad to see him feel something besides complacence at last.

Author said...

By acting as if everything was normal and checking all the drugs etc. Max was almost willing things to be good and stay that way, but deep down must have known it wouldn't/couldn't last.

Charmaine. Does she secretly want to be with Neil, but is avoiding it because Nick looks like the better option?

Anonymous said...

I really enjoy these characters. Just watching them on the ice rink was satisfying, with Charmaine flitting around and Marshall and Kate staggering around stoned. Their reactions to Pammy's confession were perfect.

Jeffrey Paul Bobrick said...

Only major thing I wanted to add is that it would be great to see a storyline with Max being pro-active rather than reactive.

That said, I'm glad you mentioned Patton Oswalt as Neil. I really like him and his character.

And JanieJones, I couldn't agree with you more about Marshall's story and the great work of Keir Gilchrist.

Jeffrey Paul Bobrick
American Idol Response

Kitty M said...

...what seemed, based on the earlier scene with Charmaine and Ted talking about gay experiences, like an attempt by Tara to see how the other half lives.

I totally got this impression too, and didn't twig at all that Tara was going over to Pammy's to break up with her 'as Buck'. I really thought she had gone to try the lesbianism, which didn't make sense to me as something that Tara would do to Max. If the latter was the case, it was set up poorly with just that one discussion, but if Tara's reason for going over dressed as Buck is to break up with Pammy then that wasn't particularly clear either. Was something cut, maybe?

It would probably have been better here but I commented one episode back on what Max's reaction to Buck having sex with another woman might be, as opposed to, say, T having sex with a man.

Anyway, this was my favourite episode yet, I think. Or at least, that moment with Buck crying. Was it definitely Buck though? Perhaps it is just my gendered expectations of who cries, but it seemed like it was Buck who entered the bathroom, but perhaps Tara who was crying over her relapse. Or was it perhaps a little moment of co-consciousness, where Buck is crying because maybe he will lose Pammy (although she just declared her love for him, so really you'd think he'd be chasing some tail, or at least feeling pretty puffed up right about there) and Tara crying at the same time for what her relapse will mean for her family.

I also thought Pammy's announcement was well-written in that she managed to not only let the family know that Buck was back and that he was sleeping with her but also that she (Pammy) knew about Tara, indicating that Tara had spoken with her when not being an alter and therefore revealing to Max etc. that Tara knows that she has been transitioning, so she can't get away with saying 'Oh, I was having blackouts, I didn't know...' Maximum disaster. Can't wait for next week!

fgmerchant said...

At this point, I find the scenes with Tara so painful to watch, yet at the same time so boring, that I fast forward them unless Charmaine, Max, Marshall, or Kate are onscreen with her. I find their story lines more interesting than Taras.

I quit the show after last season, but seeing your reviews made me revisit the show. If it doesn't get better than I am out again. It's rare for me to quit a show, I'm still watching the dreadful Heroes and 24, so it's a pretty big deal that I even quit it once!

Author said...

fgmerchant, painful how? Because it's emotional/sad or cause it's bad tv?

The only time I want to skip USOT is when Charmaine is around. She's cruel to Tara with her "it's not even a real illness" and I generally find her cold and mean. Shallow too.

Kitty M said...

Hmm, Media Mindset, on Charmaine - she is cruel to Tara at times, with her not believing the disorder is real thing, but I can't help but wonder - going back to the sexual abuse theory - whether this is because she and Tara suffered the same trauma as children.

If so, perhaps Charmaine watched Tara develop DID as a coping mechanism, which meant Tara herself didn't have to deal with the situation whereas Charmaine still did. This, as well as the attention the DID garnered, might have prompted Charmaine's jealousy of Tara, further exacerbated when Tara got to go to boarding school and escape the abuse when, once again, Charmaine didn't.

If this were the case, even if Charmaine has blocked out the memory of the abuse itself, her cruelty might unconsciously stem from all of that. This, added to the fact that she may well have watched Tara develop the different personalites, might make her into the character we see now, who doesn't take the DID seriously. All of these theories make me very interested in Charmaine and her nastiness and shallow behaviour. Just regular sibling rivalry seems too simple for this show...

Or do you think I am reading way too much into this? :)

(Sorry for leaving insanely long comments, no one I know is watching it and there's so much to discuss!)

Author said...

I don't think you're reading too much into it. You might be right. I find myself wondering why Tara & Charmaine are even close at all. It's not like she shows her any support. They actually seem like strangers most of the time.

Michael said...

OK, so did nobody else get the "Chasing Amy" reference in the title to this column? Joey Lauren Adams, Pammy here, co-starred in that Kevin Smith movie with Ben Affleck and Jason Lee.

Kitty M said...

I did indeed get that reference, Michael, not least because I just rewatched that movie about three weeks ago. As soon as I saw JLA I thought 'Oh, I see what's going to happen here...' Clever casting, it immediately makes sense, relying on the conflation of the actress and her roles. You bring that background and don't even question why the apparently straight Pammy goes for a woman who behaves as though she were a man.

And Media Mindset, on this:

I find myself wondering why Tara & Charmaine are even close at all. It's not like she shows her any support. They actually seem like strangers most of the time.

I think siblings can be like this a lot, no? You grow up, you think you have nothing in common, but you always have the shared childhood. I think the emotional distance between the two women is why the show included that scene where they were playing patter cake - it reminded us that these two grew up together, filling in for a whole cornucopia of childhood bonding experiences. They're two very different people and in some ways aren't close, but with that sibling tie I think adults often try to maintain that connection even if they would never spend time with that person if they weren't related.

Maybe the show could use more moments where we see them being nice to one another though, so we see why they might continue to be in each others' lives so much.

Quise said...

Very late to the party...

When Tara pretended to be Buck, I was under the impression that she was mainly trying to figure out what the hell was going on by trying to assume the Buck persona, trying desperately to get some sense of the missing time. Almost a compulsion perhaps, especially after she thought she was recovering. I thought a lot of that buildup of her trying on the persona was her terror at slipping that skin on--scared to death what she might find out. I didn't get that she intended to break it off.

It seems to me that the first season the alters and Tara had hard lines between them, a definite point when she transitioned. This season, the lines are fuzzy and mutable. Do you remember them saying that it would be get worse before it got better? This is it getting worse, Tara becoming more aware of the alters as she simultaneously disintegrates and integrates.

I wish that lesbian scenes in shows didn't always stir up interpretations in strange ways. I'm straight, but I long for the time when same-sex depictions don't make people squirm and add connotations that I really don't think are there (I don't think Max will excuse Tara's infidelity just because it's lesbian, and I can't imagine the show will go there based on the complex, non-stereotypical homosexual characters we've seen so far). This is just the tragedy of mental illness and ordinary people trying to cope with it, and I think that's what the final scene of Tara/Buck weeping is about.

I think the sibling dynamic is very interesting and pretty true-to-life, and the small hints being dropped by Charmaine are very effective in ramping up suspense and giving you a sense that something important is going on/went on between the sisters when they were young. Based on my own family's experience with mental illness, I think the speculations about the different reactions of the two siblings to their early (probably fucked-up) childhood are right on the money. One thing you can be sure of is that there's no such thing as "the truth" of what went on. Everyone will have their own truth.

This show is really growing on me. It's hitting some personal issues for me, as you can see.