The United States of Tara premieres this Sunday on Showtime and, as is fitting for a show about multiple personality disorder, the critics are divided.
The show concerns Tara (Toni Collette), a woman with multiple personality disorder who stops taking her medication, allowing her three alternate personalities to emerge. It was created and written by Diablo Cody (who just talked with The Wall Street Journal about how she came up with the script) and many of the critics' opinions seem to mirror their opinion of her film Juno. While some find the multiple personalities one-dimensional and wonder if Cody is purposely trying to alienate viewers with excessive snarky quips, others praise how she wrote Tara's two children, two Junoesque teens who have learned to accept their mom's illness. The critics do agree that whatever flaws the script may have, Toni Collette's performance (or performances) make the show worth watching.
Despite the boldfaced names behind the scenes - Steven Spielberg! Diablo Cody! - it's the woman at its center who ensures United States of Tara is more than a gimmick with a cutesy name. By turns oozing sexuality, vulnerability and confusion, Toni Collette gives Showtime's latest half-hour its buoyant pulse — and a credible shot at the accolades the channel covets. Although it flirts with the preciousness that proved an irritant in the Cody-scripted Juno, there's an innate sweetness at the show's core that essentially says people become inured to all manner of strangeness in the context of family - even a woman with four disparate personalities.
Unfortunately for Ms. Collette, the roles of Tara’s children are so deftly written and skillfully played that they undermine her own star turn — Tara has four personalities and is one-dimensional in all of them. Her alters are caricatures, and while grotesque exaggeration may all too often be the case in real life, a drama requires more subtlety.
[A Diablo Cody line] is pleased with its own cleverness almost to the point of hostility, sneering as it snaps past ... For whatever reason, Cody has front-loaded her scripts with this stuff—is she trying to alienate the audience? ... Tara doesn't yet show the same emotional depth as Juno—not in its first four episodes, at least—but if you have the fortitude to make it through the tonal assault of its first 10 minutes, then you'll get to see some recognizable human feeling seep up through the wisecracks.
Where the script allows Collette to create more than one real person out of Tara, it mostly limits [her children] Kate and Marshall to two-dimensional comic relief. Some of the lines are clever, but I'd trade all of that cleverness for one complete scene I could believe. Unfortunately, that same phoniness pervades too many of Tara's interactions, at home and out in public. In the end, that willingness to go anywhere for a joke or a shock turns States into a stunt — and that's truly a shame, because Collette's performance is, in its own way, a tiny masterpiece. The show is fun as is, but rise to Collette's level, and it could be great.
The supporting cast blends superbly with Collette, establishing memorable characters in their own right. But there's no question that the entire premise defies credulity, which could prove a significant hurdle over the long haul. I mean, Tara's husband has hung around, and been heroically understanding, for 17 years despite living in a situation akin to Big Love with one woman. While the kids have apparently found their own coping mechanisms, it's difficult to imagine their the embarrassment that Mom tosses at them with regularity. And based on what Tara's alter egos do in Episode 1 alone, her staying out of either prison or a mental hospital likely would require feats of magic.
But even as her multiplayer state creates a new reality for her family, we're given little sense of the old one and how they liked all those years with a drugged but unitary mother. Tolerance may be what Cody's here to celebrate, but I would have expected at least a little anger. Indeed, the show suggests that, in some ways, Tara's a better mother for being several people and that a split personality is a kind of metaphor for every woman's work.
In the half-hour pilot, the real Tara is only on screen for a couple of minutes, looking anxious and unhappy. The rest of the time, it's a lot of T and Buck, both of whom are entirely two-dimensional. T is a promiscuous, thong-flashing pain in the behind; Buck is a swaggering redneck who brawls and talks about guns a lot. It's entirely possible that future episodes will flesh out their humanity a bit, but for the moment, it's a lot of flashy acting for flashy acting's sake.
It's hard to be drawn in by the dramatic elements aimed at highlighting some of the pain Tara's situation brings on her family when half of the scenes feel like a more highbrow version of Alf, where the family is living with a set of offbeat alters instead of an alien.
I don’t really know what the show as a whole is up to—whether each of Tara’s alters is meant to be seen as a missing part of her, or whether the show is a tableau vivant illustrating that it is the lot of all human beings to have their needs unmet, and that even united states are imperfect unions. Or perhaps “Tara” just is what it is: a story about a woman with D.I.D., period. The three alters are broad stereotypes, but Collette makes the moments of transition surprisingly touching, and sometimes subtly comic. Her ability to transform herself extends even to her physique: when she’s Tara, her head seems delicate, wedge-shaped; when she’s Buck, it’s a blocky oblong. Collette is impressively convincing, even though I’m not entirely sure what I’m being convinced of.