Much like its protagonist, United States of Tara has multiple identities. It’s a mystery! It’s a dark comedy! It’s a heartfelt family drama! No, it’s sister-act chick flick! It’s an after-school special! But a constant theme is in the questions Hubby Max asks in episode seven: Who is my beautiful wife? Where does that raped-in-high-school theory lead to? And how did she get here?
The Unaltered Tara
Channeling his inner Mariska Hargitay, Max sets to work finding out who’s at the bottom of this pseudo-mystery by logging onto the website of Tara’s old boarding school. Asshole sister Charmaine, dead set on proving that Tara’s disorder is unreal, had given Max the name of Tara’s high-school roommate, whom he stealthily tracks down for a meeting. And not unlike the Scooby-Doo culprits and pliant witnesses of any Law & Order franchise, the old roomie dispenses much expository information. Her big reveal amounts to: Even though no one believed her at the time, yes, I think my high-school boyfriend may have raped your wife.
So, Max is going to run home to his wifey to share his discovery, right? Nope. The show propels its artificial nail-biterdom by forcing the husband character into keeping this a secret. Shoehorning a goofy series into a mystery template is getting increasingly cumbersome.
Another Alternate Reality
Meanwhile, back with Tara herself — or, as it turns out, not herself — her sister Charmaine is undergoing some alterations of her own. She elects to fix her “googly-eyed” breasts, and solicits Tara to be her “booby buddy” during her recovery from the surgery. The two plan to recuperate via “many Kate Hudson movies” and pudding snack packs. But the split-personality gods have other things in mind. Namely, the pseudo-Vietnam-vet alter, Buck.
As Charmaine lolls on the couch in her post-op hot-pink tracksuit — complete with the word “Brat” emblazoned on the butt — redneck personality Buck spends “his” time going through the motions of acting out his stereotype. Namely: cleaning his guns, watching the fight on TV, dismissing the gay son as a “cream puff,” and pinching a few pills from Charmaine’s stash of “hillbilly heroin” painkillers. The suspense we get here comes in the form of one measly question: Is powderkeg Buck going to set off his guns? It’s too little and too late for us to care.
In a recent New Yorker article, England’s reigning thriller king, Ian McEwan, defined suspense as “the withholding of information.” What he doesn’t say is: that information has to be something of interest. So Tara was raped as a teenager. Now what? There’s a new, nocturnal alter in the mix. So what? When you strip away the overworked displays of Toni Colette’s character acting, the script’s clever turns of phrase, and the wink-wink pop-culture nods, the plot of U.S. of Tara is a bit thin. Sure, we’ll tune in to see what happens next week with the pissing alter “poncho goblin” and to find out if Max goes after his wife’s date rapist. But the suspense is not killing us.