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United States of Tara: Who Loves You, Baby?

First comes love, then comes puke, then comes a phantom baby in the split personality’s “puppy oven.” Then comes love again. L-o-v-e is all over this episode: caged inside the evangelical church’s Hell House; flowing in a single direction between daughter Kate and her creepy boss; on the bathroom floor in an embrace between hubby Max and alter Alice.

But before all that: vomit. Despite promising Tara’s shrink he won’t tell his wife about her new night-dwelling, incontinent alter, milquetoast Max spills the beans, and Tara promptly exits stage left to spill the contents of her guts. The internal disturbance triggers an external transition, and Alice appears, glowingly declaring she’s with child. Max summons her sister to administer a pregnancy test, whose pink negative symbol Alice interprets as a sign that the baby will be a girl.

Another Alternate Reality
While Alice traipses about, dreaming up baby names and charming the psychobabble off Tara’s shrink, the progeny delve into their own love-life dramas.

Kate gets some cosmetic help and “how to please your man” advice from Alice, which she uses as ammo to try and reclaim her crappy T.G.I.Friday’s-style job from her ex-boss ex-boyfriend. Her womanly wiles do the trick: Boss dude stealthily, and creepily, delivers a dark, stoner-art DVD, where he informs Kate she’s back on the schedule.

So far we’ve dismissed daughter Kate as a tertiary character, the obligatory offspring slash typical teenager. From what we’ve peeked at in next week’s episode, looks like she may be moving from third fiddle to at least second chair. This could be interesting.

As for Marshall, he’s knee-deep in stereotypes at his rehearsal for the Hell House production at his love interest’s evangelical church. The two are charged with rustling up some “abortion meat” for the scary premarital (and hetero) sex part of the show. At the grocery store, Marshall takes a stab at getting Jason to give gayness a shot by coming up with some awkward metaphor about trying new vegetables (like okra!). Finally Hell House opens, and the two make a convincing gay couple, writhing about in a nightclublike cage wearing little more than bondage gear and day-glo raver accessories.

The Unaltered Tara
Though the real Tara only makes a fleeting appearance, this penultimate episode of the season shows Max blurring the lines between Alice and his alter-free wife. He talks to Alice about the other alters — she claims she’s the keeper of the whole split-personality clan — and she refers to “the Gimme,” which we can only guess is the aforementioned nocturnal goblin. The conversations carry some genuine intimacy. At the close of the episode, Max comforts a hysterical Alice, whom he finds sobbing next to the toilet after she gets her period. “I love you, Alice,” he says. It’s the closest to a true emotional moment we have seen from Milquetoast Max and a caricature alter.

Part of what prevents U.S. of Tara from being an unqualified success is its paint-by-numbers stereotypes. It is unlikely that producer Steven Spielberg — or his hired help — intends to limit so many characters to such simple templates. It’s more likely that they’re underestimating the intelligence of the audience. These storytelling crutches seem to be slowly falling away as the season nears its end. The programming gods have generously granted the show a second chance (in the form of a second season); it’s up to the season finale to prove it is worthy of such a gift.

Photo: Courtesy or Showtime