In one episode of Mystery Science Theatre 3000, the featured movie is so awful–the legendarily putrid Manos: The Hands of Fate–that Joel and the ‘bots are almost rendered speechless by its sheer ineptitude. One long stretch passes where none of them say anything, because there’s nothing they can say that will compete with the film’s epic failure. After what seems like forever, Tom Servo simply comments, “This movie has certain flaws.”
I felt the same way the MST3K scribes must have as I watched the premiere episode of The United States of Tara, the new Showtime series and brainchild of Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody.
The show is nowhere near as awful Manos–few things short of war crimes are–but it is almost as hard to watch. I watched the premiere on Showtime’s website, and seriously, I had to pause it every five minutes because I couldn’t believe what I was watching. Calling it a train wreck would be insulting to disasters.
Premise: The titular character is a 40-something mom of two with multiple personality disorder. She’s like Bruce Banner, except that when she gets all stressed out, she doesn’t transform into The Hulk, but one of an array of hilariously costumed “alts” (as her family refers to her other selves).
I don’t know enough about multiple personality disorder to say how someone suffering from it should act, or react, or what would trigger their transformations. But I also shouldn’t have to read the DSM-IV to enjoy a show. Thus, I have no problem saying that Tara’s transformations are way too broad to be believable.
The first episode shows her as a horny, credit card-stealing teenage girl named T, and a redneck lout named Buck. I won’t describe them further, because it’s unnecessary. Just let the stereotypical look/mannerisms pop in your head; I’m sure your brain will match them perfectly.
Why did Cody stop at these two archetypes? Why not have Tara think she’s Napoleon, or Abe Lincoln, or a frog? It’d be just as plausible, and definitely more subtle.
Her two children are, of course, preternaturally witty, quick with a one-liner, and dispense retorts to their parents that would get most kids slapped. They also possess impressive vocabularies, even in stressful situations. When Tara breaks up a fight between her daughter and her abusive pseudo-goth boyfriend*, the teen protests “We were managing the conflict!”
* Why does Hollywood think goth teen = violent? They’re about as aggressive as the Amish. Do your research, nameless Hollywood types!
Ultimately, though, it’s not the fact that the kids don’t talk like kids do in real life, since you can lob that charge at almost any show. It’s that they never shut up. No one on this show does. It makes Gilmore Girls look like Birth of a Nation. This ain’t radio. It’s okay to establish things visually on TV. In fact, it’s okay to have half a second of silence. Our brains won’t explode and our mouths won’t sew themselves up. I promise.
The show’s main problem is that it’s cowardly. If it wants to be a comedy, then it needs to go all out and be completely insane, a la Arrested Development. Create a universe in which everyone is just as nuts as the woman with multiple personalities. What about a show where this kookadook is actually the sanest person in town? There’s an idea.
At times, it seems like USOT wants to go in the Crazy Town direction. At least that’s my interpretation from certain scenes in which Tara’s family are aggressively on board with her transformations. Not that they’re resigned that this horrible condition is a part of their lives–like they’re really into it. (On his Twitter page, Todd Levin called her family “more bizarrely supportive than Marilyn Munster”.)
In Non-Crazy Town, families wouldn’t be excited to see their matriarch act batshit insane. It would be really upsetting. It would probably end your marriage, sooner or later. It would almost definitely prevent any real intimacy between you and your children. On top of all this, we get very few glimpses of how Tara is a good wife/mom when she’s not playing dress up, which would make her family’s total acceptance of her condition much more understandable.
Therefore, the Crazy Town approach makes more sense. Of course, that might be interpreted as making fun of people with serious psychological conditions. And a straight-up drama, while intriguing, would be really difficult to pull off. So USOT plays it safe by being a sort-of drama with humorous elements.
The fount of most of those humorous elements? Tara’s wacky transformations, thus negating any efforts to be sensitive to the mentally ill. Oh, and they mine plenty of laffs by constantly mocking their son for being a little too delicate. Gay jokes: the skeleton key of bad comedians.
The only reason the show is remotely tolerable is Toni Collette, who has cornered the market in Haggard Suburban Mom roles. But it’s also depressing to watch her waste time and energy jumping in and out of costume like a Female Peter Sellers. At any second, I expect her to peer around a corner and ask if anyone’s seen her minkey.
And Collette’s considerable skills are sapped by just being in the same room as John Corbett, who plays her husband. I used to like him as “Chris in the Morning” on Northern Exposure, but the only reason he seemed good on that show was because he wasn’t really acting. He just lucked into a role that perfectly mirrored his personality, and has coasted on it ever since. In your Bad Actor SAT analogies, John Corbett : Northern Exposure :: Matthew McConnaghey : Dazed and Confused.
I think what I’m trying to say is that this show has certain flaws.