By the third episode of "United States of Tara," Showtime's new dissociative-identity-disorder dramedy, things are going relatively well for the title character. Granted, life isn't easy for Tara (Toni Collette) when, at a moment's notice, one of her alternate personalities (among them, a randy teenager and a "Pleasantville"-style repressed homemaker) could pop out of her. But work is looking up–she's been hired to paint a fresco for her sister's boss, Tiffany. There's a wobble when Tara discovers that her new boss knows about her disorder, but Tiffany is surprisingly accepting. "You know, the weird thing is like, I kinda feel like everybody has it. Y'know, a little bit," Tiffany says. "It's like, over the course of a day, how many women do we have to be? Work Tiffany, or Sexy Tiffany, or Dog Owner Tiffany … it's hard, right?"
It's at that moment that "Tara," reveals an alternate personality of its own. Most of the time it's a family drama, but sometimes, it's an overt statement about the roles women are expected to play in society, and how they are often at odds. "Tara" would be plenty fuel for a women's theory thesis, but tomorrow it gets a companion in the form of "Dollhouse," a new sci-fi thriller from Joss Whedon ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer").
On their faces, the shows don't look similar at all. But both are about women struggling to figure out their own identities. In "Dollhouse," Eliza Dushku plays Echo, a woman part of an illegal enterprise that can imprint different characteristics on a person, depending on a client's need. In the pilot, a man whose daughter was kidnapped needs the perfect hostage negotiator, so Echo is imprinted with those skills. At the end of each assignment, her memories of what happened are erased. She's a tabula rasa, drifting around the Dollhouse, which looks like a big-box yoga studio, engaging in childlike dialogue with the other dolls. One minute she's kicking ass, the next she's a Stepford Wife in beta test.
Both shows are girl-powered, but not necessarily Girl Power. Tara and Echo are both largely defined by the men in their lives. For Tara, it's her husband, Max, whose struggles with fidelity seem to take up far too much of her time. She doesn't want him to have sex with her alters, and with the exception of Buck, the Skoal-chewing male truck driver, they're all over him. "Dollhouse" is a bit more problematic. All of the clients in the episodes screened for critics are men, and while there are male "dolls," we have yet to see any of them in action. Echo is essentially a high-tech prostitute. Even when she's not actually bedding the clients, as she does in two of the three episodes Fox sent out, she's being imprinted with male-fantasy archetypes. In the pilot, her hostage negotiator is a coquettish schoolmarm, who insists on being called "Miss" and says things like "Talk out of turn again, and I will scold you."
But there are subtler moments. Tara breaks down when she discovers her daughter took the morning-after pill. It's not a matter of whether she's going to be the truck driver or the trampy teen, it's whether she's going to be psycho mom, progressive mom or somewhere in between. Echo, meanwhile, has a moment in each episode where she reclaims a bit of her true personality, before she was wiped clean. In those moments lie promise for both shows to speak in real struggles women face juggling multiple roles without losing sight of who they really are.