Elevate Difference

United States of Tara

For those who might have been living in a remote village in the Amazonian jungle in 2007, Diablo Cody is an Oscar-winning screenwriter whose debut success, Juno, is still fresh in everyone’s minds. Its witty repartee and kooky characters were what made it so exceptional. Now, at Stephen Spielberg’s suggestion, Cody has written a television script that takes up everything we loved about Juno and combines it with superb acting to create a fabulous half-hour series that centers around the main character’s dissociative identity disorder (DID), which is the more recent name for multiple personality syndrome) and the chaos that having many people associated with one body causes in the family.

The impressive cast is composed of Toni Collette (Tara), John Corbett (husband Max), Keir Gilchrist (son Marshall), Brie Larson (daughter Kate), and Rosemarie DeWitt (sister Charmaine). Toni Collette actually plays a number of different characters, her alters. She is, at once, T, a lustful rebellious adolescent who curses and sulks; Alice, a 1950s Stepfordesque wife who bakes, cleans, and acts demure; and Buck, a trailer-trashy Vietnam vet who smokes and loves porn—among other alters. (I must leave you something to discover!) Toni Collette is outstanding in her acting, convincingly changing from one character to another in a matter of seconds. In general, the performances are first-rate, and there are some entertaining secondary roles, especially Kate’s two love interests, the emo samurai (Shiloh Fernandez) from the first few episodes, as well as her creepy boss at Barnabee's (Nathan Corddry).

Cody’s script is very well written, witty, subtle, and never over-the top. She deals in a straight-forward way with complex issues such as homosexuality (Marshall is gay), mental illness, and religious fundamentalism (there is a storyline around Marshall’s participation in a Hell House). All the main characters raise some ambiguities concerning Tara’s disorder (is it a true illness or intentional acting out?), and the Showtime website contains a didactic element that provides information concerning DID, a very controversial issue.

Beyond the instructive aspect, however, a quitely overt feminist message is evident in the series. The show starkly reveals a few of the never-ending roles many women are faced with in their daily lives. What woman has not had to “play” several roles, whether it be model homemaker, friend to her teenage daughter, companion to her disaffected husband, and just plain Mom? It is an ingenious ruse to disguise these roles as different personalities of the same woman, but not a far stretch of the imagination. The potential danger of the show turning a woman’s complex nature into a stereotypical hysterical mental case is done away with. Far from a rigid depiction of these seemingly traditional gender roles, the alters’ stereotypical character traits are efficiently nuanced by their interactions with other characters.

The half-hour format often seems too short when one is watching the series on television, but the constant plot twists and turns are sure to keep you watching for hours.

Written by: Sophie M. Lavoie, June 16th 2009

Hi there! Found you via Feministe. I love this show, and I think your feminist interpretation is right on, but I disagree with this:

All the main characters raise some ambiguities concerning Tara’s disorder (is it a true illness or intentional acting out?), and the Showtime website contains a didactic element that provides information concerning DID, a very controversial issue.

I really don't think that the show questions the veracity of Tara's disorder. Her anguish at her disorder is palpable, and her husband, kids, parents, and therapist all treat it as a disorder. The only character who treats it as "faking" is the sister character, who is clearly jealous of the attention Tara gets.

I saw the first episode and must make time to see the rest. I agree with your review completely! It's an impressive cast and impressive writing.

er, TV...

my grandmother suffered from this affliction her whole life - so i'm very interested to see what this movie will be like. thanks for your review!

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