(Note: since this is a multi-season show, this review is strictly about season 1)
I thought it might be best to start with an obvious one.
A show that aired first in 2009, “United States of Tara” is arguably the first TV show to focus on an in-depth look in the life of someone with Dissociative Identity Disorder.
In my experience, the only shows in the past to even mention DID in any fashion are soap operas (as a lame plot device) or criminal shows (as a lame villain/criminal device). Only in a single passing episode, of course.
“United States of Tara”, a show to feature a classic nuclear family (two parents, two kids) but with DID as the main conflict, is an interesting way to take the classic family drama/sitcom formula that is so mainstream-popular and feature mental-health.
I have watched this show in the past. Like many multiples, I leapt on it when I first heard of it, In my case, when it was picked up by Netflix a couple years ago. I prefer my shows binge-able and commercial free. I admit, when I watched it previously, I found it mostly offensive and Hollywood-itized. Some of my long-time followers may remember my passionate reactions, especially to Eddie Izzard’s character (who appears in later seasons).
This time I tried to view it with a more fair eye (helps that I’m more co-conscious this time around- HA!).
#1- No psychopathic killers
I have to say the main good for me, as a passionate lover of the horror movie genre, is that Tara is not automatically a psychopath who has an alter that kills people. I can’t even begin to say how much I hate that trope. I’m sure you shall see in later reviews, when I get into what mainly features that trope- movies.
#2- Family love and dynamic
The other part of this first season that I love is the family dynamic. Yes, there are inaccuracies with how the DID is manifested, especially in the drama-sense; and yes, the way therapy is treated in this show is a joke at best. But I have to say it is truly nice to see a mainstream show showing a family that, despite the ups and downs of living with a family member that is struggling with their identity, remain for the most part supportive.
As a whole, that is. I have beef with Max, but I’ll get to that later. I think the kids are portrayed in as accurate a way as Hollywood can get. They have some novelty fascination with their mom’s “issues”, they also have real anger and fear, but the main emotion is love.
I can’t say how much I adore the tattoo scene with the mother and daughter (Episode 9). If most of the show was more like that, I would give it a full five stars, just for trying so hard.
I also have to give it some credit (strictly in Season 1), for retaining an interesting plot that flows well without resorting to “let’s get super freaky with the DID”. It’s pretty standard stuff: she’s trying to deal daily with the alters (and a little later in the season, figure out some of her past). There’s some mess when her alters come out, but nothing that can’t be (relatively) cleaned up. There’s some good side stories with the kids. You get to see how all the alters have somewhat of a bond with the family. It is truly Tara’s family- alters and all.
There’s some great sister moments in season one as well. I find Charmaine an obnoxious character in general, but for my review I tried to be more empathic and really feel for her as if she was a three dimensional person, like I think the writer’s may have been going for.
She’s a very frustrated person though a bit selfish. I think she has a hard time seeing the family and lifestyle Tara has and equating it with the struggle of her health. I honestly think she could use some therapy to help her love herself more and stop worrying about what her sister has. But there are some great moments where you really see Tara and Charmaine, as sisters, shine through.
There’s this great bonding moment at the end of Episode 4. One of the alters may or may not have fucked up income stream for both Tara and her sister. And at first, Charmaine is pissed. She lost a job over what she thinks is her sister’s “crazy”. But then, you see this beautiful shift. Tara’s family. And Tiffany was sort of an uptight bitch anyway. And Tara offers binge-food (you can catch the lollipop obsession here, that bleeds over to the alter T, though it seems to be something Tara and Charmaine share from childhood) and Charmaine helps steady her with this wonderful patty-cake game. It seems to be this stimming/focusing technique for Tara that has perhaps been done before. There’s a deeper level to this brief scene and it’s wonderful!! I wish more were like this!
Of course…the show can’t be all unicorn farts and puppy cuddles…
#1- Actual system manifestation
All right, let’s get the DID stuff out of the way first. The manifestations are extreme. They all seem pretty anti-keep-shit-flowing-smoothly. Now, I get all systems are different, but this review is based on my personal experience and my knowledge of friends, studies, blogs, etc. But feel free to chime in if you think I get something super wrong.
So my experience with systems is that, yes there are some that like to be selfish and just sort of fuck shit up. But there’s also a good multitude of alters whose entire purpose is to smooth that shit back over. To keep things so the body seems semi-functional, doesn’t die, or get thrown in prison/hospital/etc. Pretty common. But Tara doesn’t seem to have any alter like that.
Tara is that alter.
Which brings me to point two. Tara is treated in the show as “the original personality”. But DID doesn’t exactly work like that. Again, from my experience and knowledge. Yes, there can be a sort of general “smooshed” aspect (or alter) that can be close to “original”, but the truly original person that was born? That person got destroyed in the trauma event. That’s what makes DID what it is.
And in United States of Tara, we know it isn’t co-consciousness. It’s explicitly stated that Tara isn’t able to do that. She “goes away” when the other alters are out. So what makes her not an alter? In my opinion, nothing. She is one. She’s the one that tries to keep shit together. I just wish they’d label her as such.
#2 – Max- coolest dad and perfect husband?
Okay, so my other big issue with season 1? Max. Maxy Max. The husband and father. Oh my god, could they have gone for “cool dad/perfectly supportive husband” trope any more?!
The teen daughter, Kate, literally takes advantage of this trope constantly, with her blatant discussing of her sexual activity and underaged drinking (arguably, Max sometimes stops the drinking). I get that sex shouldn’t be shameful. And I agree with that. But neither should it be some casual subject with your parents. Your child should understand how to use protection in the act, not just resort to Plan B/Morning After to not “let the fertilized egg implant itself on [her] uterus”.
Their younger son, Marshall, throws a large house party at one point with tons of underaged drinking and doesn’t get disciplined at all. An offense that literally could send both Max and Tara to jail in many states.
I guess perhaps there are families out there like that, I’ve just not come across them. But the “cool dad” trope isn’t even my biggest issue. My biggest issue is the man is somehow portrayed as this amazing freakin’ saint when it comes to Tara and the alters. I’m sorry, I do like that Hollywood isn’t having domestic drama overshadow the DID stuff, but good god Max, get mad like a real person sometimes!
I was actually watching part of season one with my boyfriend, Army, and he agreed that Max was very unrealistic. He agreed that there are great men out there that would be as supportive as they could, but all the shit that goes down in season one would definitely cause some real anger. Especially when it came to stuff that upset/hurt the children. Max seems to constantly choose his wife over his childrens’ wellbeing and I’m not sure how I feel about that message.
I get that I may be bias, but this is my review. So I get to vent about it 🙂
#3- Therapy is pure EVIL
Okay. Third biggest issue. Therapy. Therapy is a joooooke in this show. The whole thing.
It gets worse as the show progresses, but it is already a problem in season one. There’s a very weird message about medication too. What actually kicks off the season is that Tara is going off her psych-related medications for the first time in many years. And that is what’s “letting the system wake up” or whatever. I know there are a variety of meds that “deaden” the whole disassociation thing, but once the alters start doing real damage (hello, one sucker-punched a teenage boy!), does the therapist start discussing alternative medication? No. It’s just a sort of weird “oh shucks, power through this and soon it’ll be totally fine”. Like Tara is supposed to just “suck it up”. A little too reminiscent of my father.
There are only about two moments in the season where we actually see a therapy session with Dr. Ocean, Tara’s therapist. And it’s just…I was slack-jawed. This woman should not be licensed to practice therapy. The way she handles Tara is patronizing, at best. And even Army agreed that her discussing the treatment with Max behind Tara’s back (even in a “vague” sense) was way out of line. Tara is rightfully upset. Dr. Ocean is a terrible therapist. And there’s some sort of awful sick joke thrown in at one point that she “just started reading up on DID” or something. Like she didn’t even care to know how to handle Tara until after the shit-storm started happening. It was horrifying.
And don’t even get me started on the hospital’s/center’s doctor at the end who felt he had to drug Tara to force a transition. Yeah, no wonder the alters distrusted him. Hands-down, the worse part of season one.
I could take the manifestation of the DID and the characterization of Max. But I really wish the therapy was handled better. The best part about this issue is that therapy was so rarely featured in season one. The good outweighed it in this season.
Honestly, I think season one overall did a good job. For Hollywood trying to portray such a complicated and touchy disorder, they seemed to put some real thought into it. There is heart in season one. Enough heart to make me stomach it pretty well. It’s like “Practical Magic” when it comes to Pagans/witches. Yeah, not really accurate most of the time, but man do they try to not be utterly offensive like 90% of Hollywood.
Have you seen it? What did you think?