Stream this in the summer: ‘United States of Tara’

In my early days on the beat, NBC had an ad campaign encouraging people to watch summer reruns, promising, “If you haven’t seen it, it’s new to you!” In the age of Peak TV, that slogan seems less cynical than accurate. The rise of streaming services has put the bulk of TV history only a click or two away, which means that people are constantly discovering The Wire, or Arrested Development, or Terriers (sigh) for the very first time.

In lieu of a summer rewind this year, I wanted to offer up primers of shows you can stream, whether an older series available in full(*) or something current you can catch up on before its next season begins. So far, I’ve done a pair of current shows in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Halt and Catch Fire, and wanted to shift gears this week to do a completed series.

(*) Note: with these picks, I’m trying to skip the obvious stuff (Breaking Bad, The Wire, or even a lower-rated show I’ve written a ton about like Freaks and Geeksor Terriers) in favor of things I maybe haven’t been beating you over the head with for years, and/or that might not be in the top 100 from TV (THE BOOK), which I hear is available for pre-order now.

So let’s talk a little about United States of Tara.

What is it? A dramedy, created by Diablo Cody (and produced by, among others, future Transparent creator Jill Soloway and future New Girl executive producers Dave Finkel and Brett Baer) about a suburban Kansas mom (Toni Collette) suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder, or multiple personalities. Tara and her family – husband Max (John Corbett), sister Charmaine (Rosemarie DeWitt), and teen kids Kate (Brie Larson) and Marshall (Keir Gilchrist) – struggle to find normalcy in a world where, at any given moment, she could turn into hard-drinking Vietnam vet Buck, or prim ’50s housewife Alice, or wild teenager T. It ran on Showtime from 2009-11.

Where can I find it? All 36 episodes are available on Netflix, or via Showtime’s subscription service (including their Hulu deal).

Where should I start? Tara‘s best season by far was its second, but you’ll want to watch the whole thing to fully appreciate all the character arcs. Plus, since it’s a half-hour show, the entire run is barely longer than watching a season of a Netflix drama.

What are its strengths? Collette won an Emmy for the show’s first season, and while there can be a tendency to mistake “more acting” for “great acting,” this was a wonderful performance, with Tara herself an interesting character rather than the boring straight man filling time until one of the alters took over her body for a while. But all the performances were terrific. Too often, for instance, Corbett is just asked to coast on his easy-going charm, but Tara challenged him a lot by showing Max’s very raw reaction to the things Tara did while under the alters’ control, and he rose to that challenge. DeWitt, Larson, Gilchrist, and even Patton Oswalt (as Max’s best friend, and sufferer of a long-time crush on Charmaine) did whatever the show asked of them, to funny and often heartbreaking effect.

Max’s dilemma typified the larger themes of the series, about family and how you sometimes have to accept ridiculous, heartbreaking things from your spouse or parent or sibling. A lot of the great modern cable dramas, from Sopranos through Americans, found unexpected ways to comment on family life by wrapping it up in some high-stakes genre storytelling; Tara did the same not with guns and murder (though it wasn’t entirely without violence), but in taking the notion of forgiveness and acceptance to such an extreme with Tara’s unsolvable condition. Marshall coming to terms with being gay in Overland Park would have been interesting regardless, because of the specificity of the writing and Gilchrist’s performance, but having his mother’s alters frequently throwing emotional bombs at him only heightened it all.

And while the producers had hoped for more than the three seasons Showtime gave them, the ending works perfectly, and it’s the rare Showtime series to not overstay its welcome.

What are its weaknesses? Through parts of the first season, Tara struggled with the balance between comedy and drama, and the dialogue and subplots could be self-consciously quirky to a fault. It wasn’t until the second season that the series wisely decided it was a drama with jokes rather than a comedy with sad moments (even ditching the cartoonish costumes the alters wore in the first season to help viewers get used to the idea), though the third season occasionally went too dark with the introduction of a new and dangerous alter.

Also, while future Oscar winner Larson’s talent was obvious from the start, the writers never entirely figured out what to do with Kate; there’s even a story arc in season 2 that’s mostly her and Viola Davis, and there never seems to be a point to it beyond, “Hey, we’ve got Brie Larson and Viola Davis; let’s put them together!”

I’m still not entirely sold. What else can you tell me? If the above doesn’t make United States of Tara sound like a show for you, it probably isn’t. But just in case, I asked Finkel and Baer if there was anything they could say to sell the show. Here’s what they wrote:

“Like its main character, the show had many different personalities. Each season had a different show runner with a distinct personality. And it was shot at three different studios, which definitely changed the impact it had on the show. But above it all, watching Toni, John, Brie, Keir, Rosemarie and Patton work every day was one of the high points of our careers. Also, in season three, you get to watch Toni Colette hump a pumpkin.”