Editor’s Note: TV moves on, but we haven’t. In our new feature series It Still Stings, we relive emotional TV moments that we just can’t get over. You know the ones, where months, years, or even decades later, it still provokes a reaction? We’re here for you. We rant because we love. Or, once loved. And obviously, when discussing finales in particular, there will be spoilers:
The late 2000s were unquestionably Showtime’s prime. With Weeds, Nurse Jackie, and United States of Tara, the trope of the “not very funny but definitely depressing dramedy” was in full-swing. I was entering high school at the time, and watching premium channel TV was something of a nightly ritual for me and my mom. My dad was often out of town, and while he was gone we’d often dabble in True Blood (my mom was less keen on supernatural stuff, but the guys were sexy), Californication, and most of Big Love.
The show we connected the most with, however, was perhaps the most humble offering premium cable had to offer—Diablo Cody’s United States of Tara. I remember my mom eager to show me Tara’s early adverts, chirping “this seems so us” and “I can tell this is gonna be funny.” For the unfamiliar, United States of Tara was Diablo Cody’s first work since her smash hit Juno, released the same year as her now cult classic Jennifer’s Body. Juno similarly garnered a lot of hype for me and my mom—something about dysfunction always spoke to her, and she found TV and movies explicitly about people struggling through life’s basic events intoxicating. I, meanwhile, never questioned why she often gravitated towards media where a frustrated marriage hurtles towards disintegration.
I followed her down that rabbit hole; when I was 11, we owned the DVD for Little Miss Sunshine. My mom, of course, recognized Toni Collette—she has a striking look; the things she’s able to do with her eyes have typecast her into a desperate mother role ever since. Toni Collette doesn’t just play a desperate mother in United States of Tara, though. Here, Tara is a suburban mom and visual artist living in Kansas who has been diagnosed with Dissociative Identity Disorder. When she struggles to handle situations she is unequipped for, Tara shifts to one of her several alters who are, perhaps, better or worse for handling whatever stress she’s going through.
Each of Tara’s alters are played lovingly by Toni Collette. I’d be remiss to say they aren’t hyper-exaggerated—Buck, the first alter we meet, is a male trucker and gun freak who sleeps around with women and enjoys chain smoking. Tara’s most dominant alter, Alice, is something of a Pleasantville-esque housewife who often dons a pinafore and retro curls. At the time, there was little knowledge of Dissociative Identity Disorder (most people would perhaps misappropriate it as “Multiple Personality Disorder”), and Diablo Cody worked to make the show funny while also sensitive to the issues she wanted to explore. While the alters are cartoonish at times, Toni Collete plays each of them with aplomb, giving them distinctive voices, mannerisms, and relationships with one another.
Though Tara is the star of the show, she’s not the only one who struggles with her day-to-day life. My mom immediately appraised Tara’s son, Marshall (Keir Gilchrist), as being similar to me; this was probably a not-so-subtle way of her letting me know she knew I was gay. Marshall is the youngest of the family, and a quirky eccentric who enjoys classic movies, jazz, and wearing peacoats to school. Though Marshall presents as an old soul, he’s quite sensitive and struggles with his burgeoning homosexuality while also dealing with his mom’s struggling mental state. The cast also includes Tara’s husband, Max (John Corbett), an intensely normal and patient man who does much of the caretaking for the two kids, as well as older sister Kate, played spectacularly by Brie Larson. In contrast to the rest of the Gregsons, who try to peddle a false sense of normalcy and togetherness, Kate is a rebellious teen who dyes her hair, has casual sex, and enjoys hanging out with Tara’s party-girl teen alter T.
Though not many Americans struggle with a mother who has DID, many, like myself, grew up with a mom with mental illness. While Tara was airing, my mom and dad separated. My mom’s reliance on her pain pills became much more acute, and I became one of her only friends. My mom was young and pretty, and often felt judged by other parents. I often felt that way, too. High school was an isolatory time for me—when your parents are separated, they don’t really expect much from you more than the most basic motions—but it wasn’t a bad time. The only times that sucked were when I felt like people were staring at me. It’s a pet peeve I inherited from my mom.
As Tara progressed, it gradually felt a lot less funny. We all knew Tara’s lifestyle was unsustainable. Caught between the numbing effects of her medication and the chaos of her alters running the show, Tara dives deeper and deeper into therapy in an attempt to further understand her trauma. Along the way, Kate and Max struggle with their own, more typical paths through high school and beyond. Kate, wanting to break free of her unstable home life, attempts to find a way out, making her way through stints of cosplay-related sex work, debt collection, and teaching English abroad. Marshall, who comes to terms with being gay midway through Season 2 after realizing his “celibate power relationship” with his girlfriend isn’t working, explores a relationship with his best friend which ends tragically. Tara isn’t the only character traumatized during the show; she’s just the only one who responded to the stress by developing DID.
Watching Marshall and Kate try to figure their lives out while their mother questions whether being on medication is worse or better has always been an eerily familiar feeling. Often, Marshall and Kate are blind to the true obstacles Tara is up against despite how obvious they might seem. They’re both young and have their own drama going on. The visceral realities faced in Season 3 felt like they were leading to a grand epiphany—one for Tara, and also for her family as a whole. And then, unfortunately, the show was canceled, citing poor ratings in comparison to Showtime’s mainstays Nurse Jackie and Weeds.
Tara ends with a gesture towards possible healing. The characters, though suspiciously optimistic, are still crawling out from rock bottom. Tara’s end lacked the catharsis we were all searching for in the show; it implies a drastic reality for the mentally ill and the level of care they’re able to find. For me, it felt like an unresolved arc for me and my mom, and a chapter of our lives without closure.
Austin Jones is a writer with eclectic media interests. You can chat with him about horror games, electronic music, Joanna Newsom and ‘80s-‘90s anime on Twitter @belfryfire
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