I am very dubious about the new Showtime Network comedy, "The United States of Tara", which is premiering on January 18th. Since I don't get Showtime at home, I probably won't even see the show until it comes out on DVD in a year or two, but that doesn't stop me from feeling queasy about a television comedy that will use Dissociative Identity Disorder (previously known as Multiple Personality Disorder) as a vehicle for laughs.
The premise of the show revolves around the life of Tara, a housewife and mother who has four distinct sub-personalities. Since the pilot was written by Diablo Cody, the trendy and popular author of the hit movie Juno, "The United States of Tara" is sure to get a great deal of (justifiable) media attention as it hits small screens across America.
Now, I'm not one to say that movies and television can't use illness, mental disorders or other human conditions as means to entertain and educate. Thinking of "Rain Man", for instance, I can remember a high-quality film that portrayed a character who was outside the norm of human behavior without dehumanization or belittlement. Dustin Hoffman's portrayal of Raymond Babbit fit this bill very well, and although Tom Cruise's character did indeed try to take advantage of Raymond's gifts for purely monetary gain, that part of the story was what, in the end, humanized Cruise's character in the face of his own misplaced anger.
My concern about "The United States of Tara" is that her multiple personalities will be used as nothing more than a gimmick to elicit laughs, and the public will be (as usual) misinformed and perpetually uneducated regarding the truth of Dissociative Identity Disorder, also known as "DID". Just as the public still sees schizophrenia as a form of multiple personality disorder (remember Ian Hunter's poorly named 70's-era album, "You're Never Alone With a Schizophrenic"?), the television-viewing public will most likely walk away from "Tara" with no more understanding of the actual disorder than they had before tuning in.
Television and film can do a great deal to advance the cause of a particular disease or condition, and certain films can absolutely break open a viewer's heart when faced with the suffering of another human being. "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" was one such film that brought the viewer directly into the world of the afflicted character, fully realizing that individual's humanity. Comedy is, of course, another story, and I assume that my worst fears will be realized when "Tara" makes her debut on American television next week. Perhaps I'm mistaken, but this is most likely yet another example of television doing what it usually does best: entertaining the masses without provoking compassion or thought. And this would surely be yet another golden opportunity squandered.
(c) 2009 NurseKeith