By: Aleks Chan
UNITED STATES OF TARA opens to the title character looking somber and peeved. And in the next scene, she’s T, a rowdy, horny, and suggestive teenager who proudly wears her thong outside her jeans isn’t afraid of thrusting her hips in the air while supporting herself on the kitchen counter.
Sometimes she becomes Buck, a gun-slinging, beer-chugging redneck – and a man. And when she needs an extra-feminine touch, she’s Alice, prim-and-proper ’50s mother with perfectly sculpted hair and impeccable baking skills. These personality transitions are done entirely without any explanation other than that we already know that Tara (played brilliantly by Toni Collette) has dissociative identity disorder, or as it was previously known, multiple personality disorder.
But she’s mostly just Tara Gregson, a Kansas mother who paints murals for the wasp set, struggles to figure out her teenage kids (Brie Larson and Keir Gilchrist), and looks to her astoundingly patient husband (John Corbett) to get her through the madness of everyday life.
So a mom – just with multiple personalities, or “alters.” It’s a family dynamic that’s strange, but works. We don’t see family dinners, but living room meetings where Tara takes record of everything an alter has done while she was away (she can’t remember anything any of the alters do while they are manifested), asking them what Alice baked or if Buck bought porn or – while still buzzing – if T did any drugs.
At the face of this is Toni Collete, whom without TARA would never work: while her character changes clothing to signify a personality change, we can see in Collete’s seamless change of expression who she’s become. All of the alters, though blatant clichéd stereotypes, are complete characters in their own, synced together convincingly. A feat worthy of an, ahem, award. And praise John Corbett, who plays Tara’s saintly, understanding husband Max. Their relationship grounds so much of the theatrical behavior of the alters with its organic, knowing conversations, rife with adoration and sarcasm.
While a fun, tender, clever, and sometimes hilarious half-hour, UNITED STATES OF TARA at the same time feels bigger than its pay-cable premise: if you didn’t have this projected metaphor for the roles women have to play, it would actually be better than it is.
Thank creator Diablo Cody for all of this, who in creating a strong family ensemble, also created a premise that seems to only truly exist to draw attention to itself. And like her pregnancy dramedy JUNO, she makes the kids so hipper-than-thou that they seem wittier than they actually should be – like making the pregnant teen call an abortion clinic on a hamburger phone, it sometimes tries a little too hard to prove just how nonchalant it can sound.
The upshot with a Cody production is that it always gets the reactions and behaviors just right: however outlandish Tara’s alter can sometimes be, the way both Tara and her family respond, be it in horror of being embarrassed, frustrated with her conscious disappearances, or enraptured by its peculiarity, everyone behaves (though not always speak) in real, human ways.
Hopefully like in Cody’s JUNO, if we can handle the first 15 minutes worth of stabilizing (or in this case the first four episodes), then we continue on through to the end, charmed by its heart and oversize brain.
UNITED STATES OF TARA premieres Sunday January 18 at 10PM (est) on Showtime