In its first season, The United States of Tara wasn't reliably good TV, but it did work its way to generally enjoyable, particularly in episodes that treated Tara's dissociative identity disorder with the kind of respect it deserved, rather than turning it into fodder for yet another wacky TV comedy. The episodes of the show that didn't work more often just tried an uneasy blend of pseudo-realism about the damage of living with a condition like this and wacky comedy about just how crazy it would be if mom had multiple personalities. I still say the first season had its moments, particularly as it moved to the finale, but it was very much a frustrating show, tinged with occasional moments of pretty good-ness, the kind of thing you rely on people who get paid to watch this stuff to keep an eye on, just in case it turns good.
Well, readers, The United States of Tara has gotten good. Really good. Its second season makes the same sort of leap that Big Love made between its first and second season, finding a way to stop reiterating just how kooky its premise is and live within that premise. All of the characters feel looser and more lived in, and the series is playing up the comedy in its characters (who are all bright, funny people) without undercutting the inherent drama at the show's core. I've seen the first six episodes of this second season, and the series builds interesting stories and moments between its characters organically, in a way that suggests creator and executive producer Diablo Cody (who's also a co-showrunner with Jill Soloway) has learned the space available to tell stories on TV.
Actually, I'll go one better. I think Cody, who, of course, is primarily known for her film writing at present, is actually someone whose talents are better suited to TV. In discussing the show with Claire Zulkey (who'll be covering the show in the weeks to come but is out of town this evening), I suggested that she was somewhat similar to patron saint of TV geeks Joss Whedon in that regard, and while I was mostly joking at the time, I think there's something to that. Both lean heavily on quip-heavy, pop culture reference-slinging dialogue that only gradually reveals the souls of the characters spouting it. Cody, like Whedon, has to lean heavily on types in her screenplays, and that often leaves many of her characters frustratingly vague quote machines. In a film, you really only have room to elucidate two or maybe three characters in this fashion. But on a TV show, you have all the space in the world.
Some critics who've similarly praised the second season of the show have said that Cody and company have calmed down the quips. I don't think that's necessarily true. There are just as many goofy references and one-liners in the season two premiere as there were in the pilot. The difference, now, is that the first season spelled out who these characters were after enough time, and the series gained a confidence that allowed it to ditch the gimmicky treatment of the disorder at its center. Now, the show trusts that Toni Collette will let you know Buck has showed up solely from the way she adjusts her gait, and it feels roughly assured that Brie Larson's Kate can be both the kind of girl who could be popular and kind of a geeky iconoclast without rubbing your face in it at any given moment.
I've rattled on ad nauseum here about how the best TV shows are also the best shows at building worlds. The world Tara is building in its second season is, by necessity, smaller than the worlds more epic TV shows create, but it's no less impressive. I absolutely buy the Gregsons as a family, even though none of the actors particularly resemble each other, so good is the chemistry between the actors, but I'm also starting to buy the neighborhood the show is constructing for its characters or the high school Marshall attends as believable worlds with just an added element of quirk to let us know we're living about 15 degrees to the left of normal. As with Cody's script for Juno, the Kansan world of Tara is a fundamentally warm place where people try to understand each other, but it's a place where bad, bad things can happen.
So if that's not enough to convince you to give Tara's second season a chance, I don't know what will be. (It's also worth pointing out that if you've never seen the show, it's easy to dive in to.) To that end, then, let's discuss "Yes."
Obviously, without spoiling, I can talk somewhat about what the major theme of the season seems to be. The series is always going to be, on some level, about identity, what with its main character, but this season delves into one particular question in that regard: Do any of us have what might be termed a "true" identity? Is there a version of ourselves that's truer than any other? Or are we all putting on masks and are just better at hiding it than Tara is? (You'll have to forgive the references to masks; I've been reading too much of The Wrestler's Cruel Study.) Tara's second season puts literally every character through an identity crisis. Some are pretty obvious, even in the premiere. (Tara, for example, is on a new drug cocktail that keeps her pretty well-balanced, while Marshall is struggling to work out just where he fits in the high school hierarchy.) But others will sneak up on you as the season goes on.
For Tara, the real questions begin when old man Hubbard, the Gregsons' next door neighbor, kills himself in what's rumored to be a long, protracted fashion. Asked to watch over the Hubbard house by the man's sister, Tara encounters something that seems to return Buck to the scene, and the alter promptly wanders off to a local bar to hit on the waitress there (played by the still irrepressible Joey Lauren Adams). It's a pretty simple conflict for the episode - can you ever really escape who you truly are? - but it resonates through every storyline. Kate's new boss asks her how she can "get to yes," and the whole episode might as well be about characters trying to get to that point themselves, trying to find new ways to embrace positivity and put the past behind them. But the past is always lurking, and it's always ready to seize you when you least expect it.
- As mentioned, Claire will be taking this over in weeks to come. We might be alternating. I don't know. But one way or another, we'll cover this show for at least a little while.
- If the above wasn't enough to convince you that season two is worth a look, you should know that Patton Oswalt will return in a couple of weeks, and Viola Davis will drop in next week as a character utterly unlike any other she's ever played. (And, as always, she's great.) And Adams comes back as well.
- I like the way the show is portraying the out and proud gay kids as vaguely threatening to Marshall, who probably has a pretty good idea of who he is but is still figuring it out. It's a pretty bold direction to take, and it takes a while to reveal just what the show's going at here.