TV Review: ‘The United States of Tara’

01.18.09 9 years ago 4 Comments

Nigel Parry/ Showtime

For a woman who won an Oscar and created a blockbuster with her first movie, Diablo Cody produces wildly divergent reactions depending upon who you talk to.

Strike that. 

Perhaps *as* a woman who won an Oscar and created a blockbuster with her first movie, Diablo Cody produces wildly divergent reactions depending upon who you talk to.

Sure, her characters don’t talk “the way people talk,” opting for a pop culture infused, convolutedly patois all their own. It’s not like Quentin Tarantino, Aaron Sorkin and David Mamet write the way people talk. 

Sure, she probably relished the publicity of the “Juno” more than we deem respectable, as if Tarantino or James Cameron were models of restraint when they were coronated by Hollywood.

Sure, we all got a wee bit tired of Cody’s stripper-turned-blogger-turned-screenwriter story. The media beats stories to death, whether it’s Tarantino’s video clerk-to-auteur journey or Martin Scorsese getting his Oscar. It’s what we do.

My point? Cody got raised up and torn down before it was possible to accurately gauge whether or not she was really positioned for longevity, largely by fanboys who were just a tiny bit jealous.

Showtime’s “The United States of Tara” premieres on Sunday (Jan. 18) night and the pockets of online hostility toward the show are already laughable. 

Far from a perfect show bursting fully grown from Cody and executive producer Steve Spielberg’s head, “Tara” is rough around the edges and sometimes annoying inconsistent in tone and delivery. But it’s interesting, original and is built around a lead performance from Toni Collette that will doubtlessly be remembered come Emmy and Golden Globe season.

[More thoughts after the bump.]

Collette plays Tara, a suburban wife and aspiring freelance mural artist. She has a sarcastic teenager daughter (Brie Larson), a sweet and supportive son (Keir Gilchrist) and a husband (John Corbett) of 17 years who’s beyond understanding. What does everybody need to be supportive and understanding about? Well, Tara suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder and an assortment of alternate personalities (alters) pop up unbidden whenever things get stressful.

“The United States of Tara” is about a woman suffering with DID, but it isn’t a documentary. Tara’s alters — including skanky teen “T,” perfect ’50s housewife Alive and gun-loving redneck Buck — are probably broader than what many DID sufferers experience. As Cody weaves the personalities into the early episodes, Tara turns herself over to whichever alter is necessary, whether it’s Buck to ward off her daughter’s handsy boyfriend or  Alice to restore domesticity to a chaotic family situation.

Tara’s situation is presented as both extraordinary, but also weirdly ordinary. Every family has the wrinkle that they think makes their life more difficult, that makes them different for everybody else.

“We’re lucky, Mom. Because of you, we get to be interesting,” son Marshall observes in the pilot.

“The United States of Tara” is a comedy, with the humor coming from the broadness of the alters and Collette’s interpretation of the tricky character, but it also has a strong aspect of speculative fiction. It isn’t sci-fi, but Cody and her writers spend a lot of time thinking in terms of “What ifs,” exploring the possibilities and complications of Tara’s situation. Because this is filtered through Cody’s consciousness, the concerns aren’t necessarily exactly what would come to mind first for a different writer. 

Early episodes, for example, deal extensively with the ethics of having sex with one of your wife’s alters. Yes, it’s her body, but if the mind in the body is convinced it’s a flirty 15-year-old or a racist Vietnam vet, does that enhance the eroticism or open the door to charges of adultery? And what do you do if the male alter has a crush on, say, the woman working at the bowling alley?

“I envy your sex life, dude,” says the hubby’s best friend and co-worker. “It’s like you’ve got one of those three-packs of cereal. You get like a Froot Loop and a Honey Smack and you just dump the milk in the box and then you chuck the ones you don’t like.”

It isn’t that easy.

Showtime sent four episodes out to critics, and while a couple produce laughter and are easy to categorize, another couple, the fourth episode in particular, play as quirky 30-minute dramas, almost in the same way “Weeds” has occasionally decided not to be funny for weeks at a time. Along the same lines, Tara’s DID can be the lone focus of episodes, building everything around the arrival and impact of an alter, but in other episodes it’s just another thing that family is dealing with. 

The fourth episode, the least DID-y and the least comedic of the group, is also the first episode not to be written by Cody. “Friends” veteran Alexa Junge is the scribe-of-record and despite occasional nods to Cody’s style, the difference is notable. That’s a problem with any show created by somebody with a singular voice. The characters on “West Wing” became different people when Aaron Sorkin left. You can tell David Mamet episodes of “The Unit” from those written by somebody else on the staff. And since Cody is the voice of “Tara,” in her absence you get an understanding for how unreproducible her voice is.

Yeah, she has characters calling each other “hosebeast” and discussing the “Lifetime Lady Tampon Movie” genre and she’s responsible for the phrase “honest to blog” (which goes blissfully unused in “Tara”), but Cody’s also got a gift for crafting sweet moments amidst the crassness. That shouldn’t be discounted nor, if you ask me, should “The United States of Tara.”

Do I know where “Tara” is going as a series? Not really, though some dark and serialized elements are introduced in that last episode. But why is there a requirement that family comedies have an endgame? The series doesn’t need to build to anything, because its main character and her relations are worth following. For a while at least.

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