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United States of Tara, “Trouble Junction” (2.02)

“Does it occur to you that now that I’m better, you’re just looking for another project?” – Tara Gregson

The season two premiere of United States of Tara, “Yes”, written by Jill Soloway and directed by Craig Zisk. Review after the jump…

I’ve had probably two weeks to write this entry, having had the episode for more than a week before its airdate, and yet its hard to muster up the passion to write an in-depth review of it. Not because its necessarily a bad episode, nor because it lacks great moments, but because all in all it feels like a smattering of great scenes held together by filler.

I see how each level of the family is digging into a plot about being an outsider: Kate’s hippie artist, Marshall and the school’s gay culture, and Max with his “stigmatized house”. It’s interesting, because last year the show mostly had its residents struggling to keep things as normal as possible in rejection of Tara’s alters: Marshall trying to hide his crush, Kate getting a boring job she could escape to, and Max being the perfect husband. In absence of the alters, the group seem to go elsewhere for their weird; just like Tara says, once she’s normal, what’s left to ‘fix’?

Unfortunately, though the goings-on of the family without the alters is important stuff for Tara’s journey this year, there’s something less-than-engaging about the family when Tara’s got nothing going on. Each plot is so separate from its leading lady that they need a real centre to hold them down.

Case in point, Marshall’s journey into the gay scene is merely frustrating, because Marshall (rightly) spends the entire time looking lost; the other main two players here are the odious Lionel and the bland Courtney (I’m still debating whether to call her Ann, whose place on Arrested Development was indeed to be the boring girl, yet often played with an edge by the great Mae Whitman). Marshall wanders through this plotline, so uncomfortable with the ferocity of Lionel’s attitudes that he ends up kissing Courtney. With Keir Gilchrist only able to play an awkward, uncomfortable Marshall, the plot spends the episode treading water until fireworks happen later.

Kate’s escapades into the world of collections meet with more success. Part of it may be that Kate is a much more overtly comic character than Marshall, approaching life with vigor and twinkle while he is constantly calculating risk. Part of it is the vast reserves of charm Brie Larson brings to the role, which helped save the often-irritating Barnabeez plotline last season. And part of it is that the guest characters involved were more engaging: Kate mostly deals with her collections co-worker, deftly played by Matt Braunger, and with the engaging Linda P. Frazier, brought to life by Viola Davis. Both characters do much more to liven things up compared to Marshall;s plot buddies.

This may strike at the heart of the episode’s weakness: not having Tara and her alters at the core of things means more guest characters are needed to support. Between Kate’s and Marshall’s stories are four guests when, last season, only two were typically needed (Gene and Jason), and even with guests as engaging as Kate’s sparring partners, it makes the cast feel diluted. We’ve got series regulars in Tara, Max, Kate, Marshall and Charmaine, who are all serviced in this half-hour, which sometimes feels a bit crammed.

That said, Max and Charmaine mostly danced around Tara this episode, and were ever the stronger for it. Toni Collette is one of those actresses that forces everyone around her to up their game, and it works wonders here: Rosemarie DeWitt plays Charmaine at her most abrasively adorable after the news about her engagement (while still sneaking in a moment where, more observant than Tara expects, she catches Tara in a lie), while John  Corbett comes alive in scenes such as the “All Out of Love” duet.

And we come to Joey Lauren Adams likely the strongest and most engaging thread this season has introduced, and probably my most beloved guest character. With most anyone else in this role, Pammy would seem a bit suspect, but Adams is so utterly adorable and smitten with Buck that the plot works. Even when Collette is playing an evasive Tara trying to escape, both pop in a way a lot of characters (this season, oddly enough, those are typically John Corbett and last season’s MVP Keir Gilchrist) just haven’t been. And it allows the show to look at the alters in a new way.

What happens when, as it seems with Buck, an alter falls in love? The alters are extensions of Tara, which poses the question of why Buck would pursue, and fall for, Tammy. Typically the alters’ do have a specific purpose, whether saving Marshall from investing in Jason as T did, or allowing Tara to communicate with Max or Charmaine as Buck was able to, both last season. Is Buck trying to create strife as a cry for help to get Max to notice Tara’s pain? Is the affair with Tammy an extension of feelings Tara, like Marshall here, has buried in order to have a normal life? And once Tara’s alters’ return is outed, these questions will have to be asked.

Most frustrating, yet realistic, is how Max treats Tara here. We were given hints that he saw himself as her white knight last season, with his search for her DID’s inciting incident merely revealing a lie Tara’s alters had perpetuated, likely to hide her real inciting trauma. Max doesn’t realise, when talking to the plumber, that the improvement in Tara is indeed a ‘sully rig’, a temporary fix that can easily be rebroken. He doesn’t see his wife falling apart as she begins to see Buck, and he refuses to see how he’s pulling away from her, making him another in a long line of TV leading men with a severe lack of self-awareness (see: Paul Weston, In Treatment; Will Schuester, Glee; Jack Shepard, Lost, etc.). Even as the two share one of their sweetest scenes in the Air Supply jam, its just another distraction from real life, just like Marshall’s ill-thought-out pursuit of Courtney.

Even when things seem so right, they aren’t, as evidenced in that final montage: Max’s love affair with the Hubbard house is mostly a creepy distraction from his marriage, Charmaine’s impending wedding is more a goal than the finding of a true love partner, Buck’s encounter with Pammy is Tara cheating on her husband with a woman who is completely unaware of what the score is, and Marshall is merely avoiding a path her’s begun to see as unsavoury by leaping on the first pair of non-Gregson female lips he can find. The only plot that doesn’t seem explicitly to involve a Very Bad Idea is Kate’s intrigue with Frazier, which is going somewhere,  but hasn’t yet revealed itself.

This season will likely kick into gear when Buck’s actions, and Tara’s hiding of them, are revealed. I’m betting we’ll see this in the next episode (which, in fact, I have queued up for first-watch as I type this). Until then…

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