Some shows stay on the air for so long, there’s seemingly no end in sight (Grey’s Anatomy, I’m looking at you), and others, like United States of Tara, leave us far too soon. The Showtime dramedy focused on a woman with dissociative identity disorder (what you may know as multiple personality disorder) and how she and her family deal with her many alters. And after three seasons on the air, it was canceled.
Mental illness isn’t something usually depicted on television in a realistic, humanizing way, if it’s even depicted at all. But United States of Tara gave the television world a show that was all about mental illness and all about, in a way, normalizing mental illness. Tara’s a mom and a wife and a sister and a student and an occasionally working woman. She’s functioning. It just so happens that when she gets overwhelmed, she morphs into one of her alters (ranging from a male troublemaker to a wannabe Stepford Wife). To us viewers who may not have experience with dissociative identity disorder, we may be surprised each time it happens. How did this mom just turn into a crop-top-wearing teen? But to Tara’s family, it’s just a part of Tara. They’ve figured out what to do when each alter comes out, and even have individual relationships with them, going as far as to express joy when Alice, the tidy one, comes back or when T, the teenager, appears. It’s a giant lesson in acceptance and an even bigger lesson in understanding – both areas we could all use a little help in.
Even if you weren’t watching the show to get a progressive look at mental illness on television, it was undeniably entertaining. It had its dark parts – the entire reason Tara has alters – but it was also consistently funny, never taking itself too seriously. The show also made sure to delve into Tara’s family members’ lives too, showing that they were functioning and didn’t spend all their days taking care of Tara. Marshall’s adventures in dating and Kate’s adventures in trying to figure out what to do with her life resonate with, well, everyone, and they both have sometimes-turbulent relationships with their mom just like any other teenager. Because that’s what Tara is to them: A mom. And Max and Tara’s relationship? Beautiful. Enviable. Okay, so they had their troubles, like cheating on each other, but whatever.
And the acting. Toni Collette won both a Golden Globe and an Emmy for her roles as Tara and the alters, and rightfully so: Each of Tara’s alters seemed to be played by a different actress because of how insanely distinct each one was. She would be Gimme, a goblin-like thing, one minute and Chicken, a baby-talking child, the next, and the transition between the two would be flawless. Many shows are criticized for not having layered characters, but that’s all United States of Tara had.
Three seasons is a good run. We got to see conflicts unfold within Tara’s family, we got to see her reject treatment and almost lose herself. We got to see her attempt recovery, we got to see her confront her repressed past. But for a show so great, three seasons was hardly enough – let’s be real, there was enough there for each alter to have its own season and still be enticing. And that unrealized potential is why I’m still not okay with United States of Tara being over. You left us too soon, Tara (and Buck, and T, and Alice, and Gimme, and Chicken, and Shoshana). Way too soon.