“United States of Tara” recently started its third season on Showtime. The half hour comedy about a family’s struggles with Disassociative Identity Disorder earned star Toni Collete an Emmy for the first season and a Golden Globe for the second. With the new season underway it’s an ideal time to catch up or revisit the previous season and see what it had to offer.
The second season of “United States of Tara” opens with the Gregson family entering what may be a period of true normalcy. Tara (Toni Collete) hasn’t transitioned into any of her alter personalities in three months, and is so emboldened by this that she throws out the clothes that she would wear when the alters were in control. Of course sailing isn’t quite as smooth as it seems. When their next door neighbor commits suicide Tara’s husband Max (John Corbett) has the notion of buying the house and fixing it up to sell, a scheme that quickly becomes more trouble than he bargained for. At school the youngest Gregson, Marshall (Keir Gilchrist,) continues coming to terms with his sexuality, something made more difficult by his friends trying to mold him into who they think he should be. Tara and Max’s daughter Kate (Brie Larson) graduates early from high school and soon finds herself wrapped up with a local artist who sees a similarity between Kate and one of her artistic creations. Tara’s sister Charmaine (Rosemarie DeWitt) is proposed to by her boyfriend but can’t seem to settle down the way she knows she should. Amidst all of this Tara’s alters soon reassert their presence, including a brand new alter who may actually prove to be helpful to Tara in her struggle to realize the cause of her DID.
This second season sees a decreased emphasis on Tara’s condition overall, though it’s still the driving force of the show overall. She transitions into her alters less frequently, and the show only really spends time using the alters that will help the story move forward. Since the first season established each of the alters so well there was no need to bring each of them back again every few episodes. Fans know who they are and how they operate now so the writers only call on the alters when it suits the story. This means that some of them get quite a heavy focus while others barely appear at all for the entire season. There’s also a shift in Tara as she has a few occasions of interacting directly with the alters, for example arguing with Buck when he wants use of her body. This is something that wasn’t done in the first season but it makes sense that with new meds Tara’s relationship with the alters has shifted in a way that allows for these kinds of interactions.
With less time spent on the alters the supporting characters get quite a bit more screen time in this season. It’s really impressive how well this shifts in focus works. Usually expanding secondary characters is what writers start to do when they begin to run short of ideas for the lead, and they usually just distract or feel like filler. Showtime’s biggest hit “Dexter” is a good example of this. The most recent season of that show had some of the best work done for the main character yet, but that work was somewhat undermined by all the time spent on the secondary cast. Anything that wasn’t focused on or at least could be directly connected back to Dexter felt pointless at times. Thankfully this is not a problem for “United States of Tara.” As much as Tara (and her alters) is the lead character it’s the family dynamic overall that really made the show special in its first season. So it doesn’t feel like a distraction to expand on the lives and personalities of the other members of that family unit.
There’s also a surprising number of new regular characters introduced as well. Again this is a move that usually is a bad sign for a TV show. Most of the time a heavy influx of new characters is an indication of writers being bored with the characters they already had. However the characters introduced feel very organic and serve more to bring a sense of general community. The newcomers include a local bar tender, the Gregson’s neighbors, a local artist and some of Marshall’s classmates. These characters never feel forced into the show and they help to expand the world overall. In the first season the Gregsons felt a little bit like they existed in a vacuum, which was fine for a first season since the focus needed to be on the family and how they operate. With that established it helps the show that the world they live in now feels larger and more complete than it did before.
By expanding the world of the show and the supporting characters the second season of “United States of Tara” manages to grow without losing sight of the lead character. All of the actors, and a few guest stars, are given chances to shine but Collete remains the bright center of it all. How thoroughly she inhabits each of the vastly different alters never stops being entertaining. This season even gives the alters some more depth, by allowing Buck to get romantic and Alice to be downright vicious. The show continues to manage a near perfect balance of comedy and drama. Things never get too dark but the show is serious enough about the various topics it’s touching on (mental illness, sexuality, etc) that it’s always respectful. This season also managed to end a bit more satisfactorily than the first season, while still leaving plenty of places for the show to go in the future.