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TV Rewind | United States of Tara: When Toni Collette awed us with her many avatars

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It is for a good reason that 2000s is known as the age of Peak TV. The noughties served us oddball masterpieces and blockbuster-level spectacles, and everything in-between. Breaking Bad and Mad Men, Dexter and The Good Wife – There was so much great television that some real gems never really got the attention they deserved. There was one particular show that despite its awards, never even got the send-off it deserved. Plagued by low ratings, it was summarily canceled by the network, much to the chagrin of its niche, but dedicated, fan following. The show, ladies and gentlemen, was United States of Tara, starring Toni Collette.

Based on a concept by Steven Spielberg, and created by Diablo Cody, the comedy-drama lasted for three seasons, between 2009-2011.

What is United States of Tara all about?

United States of Tara follows the story of Tara, played by Toni Collette, who is trying to cope with dissociative identity disorder (DID). The story opens with Tara going off her medication and her multiple egos re-emerging, one at a time. She is surrounded by her husband, daughter and son, who are all dealing with her condition differently. Her daughter Kate, played by Brie Larson, is going through her rebellious phase and finds her mother’s condition extremely inconvenient. Max, her husband, played by John Corbett, is an ally and wants to learn more about Tara’s childhood trauma that first triggered her DID. It is her sister Charmaine, played by Rosemarie DeWitt, however, believes that Tara might just be faking it all. While Tara is struggling with her many personalities, her son Marshall, played by Keir Gilchrist, is repressing his sexual identity just so he can be as ‘normal’ as possible.

In the first season, we meet her four alter-egos and by the end of the series, we are introduced to seven personalities that all stem out of Tara. There’s the 1950s housewife Alice who is demure and delicate, the Vietnam war veteran Buck, the flirty teenager T, and many others, but none of them is as scary as the personality that represents her sexually abusive half-brother Bryce who has the capacity to kill Tara and her loved ones.

What worked for United States of Tara?

United States of Tara’s backbone is Toni Colllette and it would be fair to say that the niche cult following that this show enjoys primarily because of the actor’s ability to switch from one character to another without even blinking. The show’s premise hinges on DID but it is Toni’s performance that makes the audience care for her character, even when her alter-ego does something that’s clearly wrong.

United States of Tara unfolds like a family drama where every character is pushed to their limits because of Tara’s condition. They are all trying to cope but there’s hardly anything that brings them solace. Whatever frustrates them with regard to her condition, affects their personal life – be it Marshall falling into bad company because his mother’s alter-ego slept with his boyfriend, Max getting arrested for battery because he is overwhelmed with everything on his plate, or Kate dating inappropriate men just so she can rebel in some way.

brie larson Kate was one of the earliest roles for Oscar-winner Brie Larson, now known for Captain Marvel.

The show deals with subjects like sexual infidelity – when it is not under one’s control – and how it could tear a family apart. A large part of the show talks about the sexual abuse of children by trusted household members and its lifelong impact. But most of all, it discusses the challenges of being a patient and caregiver of someone dealing with DID.

The best part of the show, where everything started to come together in a scary yet definitive way, was the revelation of Bryce’s story. The actual Bryce molested Tara as a child but the alter-ego wants to ‘kill’ her. This is when the show has to pull out all stops to save the protagonist.

United States of Tara finale

The show ended on a sudden note so the last episode of Season 3 doubled up as the series finale. But, in hindsight, this was the ending that the show needed. It gives Tara a moment to pause and confront her condition head-on. It gives her a chance to choose the treatment she wants. The shot of her alter-egos laying in the backseat of the truck in a battered state stays with you. The ‘good parts,’ as described by Marshall, were the ones that stayed with us.

Kate’s decision to stay with Marshall was another nice touch.

What did not work for United States of Tara

United States of Tara had everything going in its favor but the timing. The show was based on a concept by Steven Spielberg, had a great cast, was executed brilliantly but what it did not have any control over was its competitors.

When the show began in 2009, television was enjoying its ‘golden phase’ with a variety of shows like – Breaking Bad, Mad Men, 30 Rock, The Office and Dexter among many other giants. And while United States of Tara was as unique as any one of those, the tough competition made it harder for it to get a large chunk of the audience.

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Laurels for united states of tara

Through its run, the show was nominated for six Emmys, with Toni winning an award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series. She also received two Golden Globe nominations for her performance.

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