Diablo and Diablo and Diablo.Posted: January 28, 2009
The United States of Tara proves that writer Diablo Cody is not a one-hit wonder or a one-trick pony. Her ear for fresh dialogue, so evident in the movie Juno, is once again the salient element. In this Showtime comedy series about a suburban mom (Toni Collette) with multiple personality disorder, people talk with a sound at once real and stylized, heightened — you listen for the next turn of phrase that sounds unlike anything you’ve quite heard before, and when it comes, it brings pleasure. Though you’d think such pointed stylization might make the dialogue sound contrived, it doesn’t; instead, it makes the characters seem more alive, I suppose because people in life do have their own, unique sonic and syntactical fingerprints. Or, contrarily (but leading to the same result), we desperately want to believe they do, that somewhere there are families who really do use language in so fresh a way, even if we haven’t run into them.
Beyond the pleasure of hearing bright people talk in surprising ways, there is an idea in The United States of Tara, one that goes deeper than the high concept of the show. On the surface, Tara is about a wife and mom who may at any point shift into the persona of one or another of a whole repertory company of characters due to her psychological condition. The more one wades into the two episodes that have aired so far, however, the more one notices that all the characters in the show, the central and more peripheral ones — Tara’s husband and kids, their coworkers and friends, etc. — have adopted personas that may or may not be who they “really” are. The only difference is that everyone but Tara picks one and sticks with it, while Tara gets to choose between several. But that, the show seems to say, is a trivial difference. The selection of a pair of funky eyeglasses, a punk-Samurai hairstyle, an attitude — these are the ways each of us controls the characterization we consciously or unconsciously choose to present to the world. Tara’s “dissociative identity disorder,” her abnormality, is a lens the show’s creators use to focus us on the artifice of the thing we call the social order, the alienation behind the thing we call normality. The show has a lot on its minds.