When Joanne Woodward played a woman with split-personalities in The Three Faces of Eve (1957), she lit up the screen and won an Academy Award for her performance. In 1976 Sally Field won an Emmy for the telemovie Sybil (in which Woodward played her shrink). Now Toni Collette is nominated for an Emmy for United States of Tara, the cable drama in which her character suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) – a much more contemporary name.
Ignore the fact that Tara is nominated in the comedy category. It’s barely even a ‘dramedy’, though there are moments of black comedy. Executive produced by Steven Spielberg this is essentially a dynamic drama written by Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody. Set in the idyllic state of Kansas, it is far from a perfect American Dream.
Tara is a housewife with a husband and two children, and three additional alternate states. Her family co-exists with each of her additional personalities: ‘T’ an outrageous, rebellious, pot-smoking teenager; ‘Alice’ a 1950s housewife who has stepped straight out of Leave it to Beaver; and ‘Buck’ a male Vietnam war vet pissed off with the world.
In an effort to uncover the reason behind her disorder, Tara shuns her medication, which causes her alternates to recur more frequently. Rather than a shock approach to the theatrics of DID, Tara opens up on just another day in suburban hell as everybody pragmatically shifts gears to adjust to her ‘moods’. ‘T’ is her daughter’s favourite, while Buck gives son Marshall (Keir Gilchrist) a hard time over his homosexuality. Yep, Tara’s 14-year-old son is gay, very adjusted and not the least bit flamboyant (sorry Ugly Betty’s Justin). By Episode Three, he pursues a handsome young jock who looks like a young Brendan Fraser.
Collette has an absolute field day with her Lazy Susan of characters. She is simultaneously aggressive, flirty, subdued and puritanical. Sitting in the eye of the storm is the real Tara, the exhausted mother of two supported by her ever-patient husband Max (My Big Fat Greek Wedding’s John Corbett).
Tara is a thoughtful, intelligent piece of television. At just thirty minutes, it never outstays its welcome. We are as intrigued as we are entertained. How did she become so splintered, and is there an easy way out? Doubtful. Not if Buck has anything to do with it.
United States of Tara airs 9:30pm Wednesday on ABC1.