Showtime’s United States of Tara, created by Oscar-winning blogger/ex-stripper Diablo Cody, comes to television with pedigrees and controversy. It stars Toni Collette as a suburban hausfrau with a misunderstood illness called dissociative-identity disorder, or DID, the more recently minted term for what we’ve long called multiple-personality disorder. But if Tara is about a mom with DID, it isn’t your mother’s DID. In other words, we don’t get the eerily disturbing Sybil treatment, evoking a condition you wouldn’t wish on any poor, traumatized soul, but a coping comedy, as if having the lady of the house flitting in and out of full-blown identities were another wacky metaphor for how many different roles — domestic goddess, bedroom hellcat, nurturer of others and caretaker of her own destiny — women have to play in modern life.
We meet Tara Gregson, actually, in the middle of a worry spiral, fretting before the lens of a self-set-up video camera that she hasn’t been able to “micromanage her daughter’s vagina” — meaning she’s discovered her teenager’s morning-after pills. Turning off the camera, she closes her eyes, starts to wobble, and then begins shedding clothes. When Tara’s daughter Kate (Brie Larson) comes home, she finds “T” in her bedroom: mom transformed into a thong-sporting 15-year-old party girl straight out of the Diablo Cody bag of vocabulary tricks. “Mom went all CSI on that pubic patch you call a backpack” (a stuffed monkey) and found Kate’s “kill pills” (the RU-486), T tells the daughter, then complains about her own “muffin top” (above-the-waist flab) and says she wants to go shopping because she’s “fully laminated” (armed with Tara’s credit cards). Kate hugs her and says T is her favorite out of all mom’s “alters” (a real term in the DID field that Cody didn’t make up).
Much as with fashion trends hitting department stores, it’s been said that once a slang term gets used on television — Leno referring to “bling,” for instance — its reign of hipness is officially over. I’d like to add a Diablo Cody caveat to that rule: Hear her bead-stringing use of invented linguistic McNuggets once, and pray you never have to again. Juno was off-putting enough with how Cody’s self-conscious glossary-speak seemed to just float in its own choke-inducing air rather than reflect anything central about the movie’s characters or what they were going through. Tara has this same problem in the first few Cody-written episodes. We’re supposed to think it’s amazingly cool that Kate, husband Max (John Corbett) and gay preteen son Marshall (Keir Gilchrist) are all go-with-the-flow now that mommy’s chosen to go off her meds so she can feel again and tap into her artist’s soul. (Tara paints room murals for wealthy folk.) Max is even sweet enough not to fuck his wife when she’s a mental minor coming on to him. (That would be cheating!) But it leaves the show dramatically cold and boring seeing such a well-adjusted household when there’s a prepackaged, ready-to-cook bundle of conflict in their midst.
And as fully committed (pardon the pun) as Collette is when she transitions to T, or to Buck, a chain-smoking redneck Vietnam vet, or to Alice, a ’50s-era homemaker — all with appropriate costumes, as if home were a Tracey Ullman wardrobe — there’s no sense of who the Gregsons are as flesh-and-blood people outside this psychological kink in their matriarch. Stick a laugh track on it and it wouldn’t feel much different from a generic family sitcom with a gimmick, where one-liners trump characterization. The show, which is also executive-produced by aliens-in-the-homeland veteran Steven Spielberg, has earned advance worry for what some see as an ill-advised comic tone being taken with a story revolving around a crack in one’s faculties, but I have no problem with that: Humor can be found nearly anywhere when it comes to the nuances of the human condition. But Cody is hardly a gifted writer when it comes to said nuances, which means that, like Juno, United States of Tara plays like surface feminism with an added gloss of snark and a bewilderingly blah sentimentality.
There’s more than one woman at home, too, in HBO’s excellent multiple-wife drama Big Love. But I know of no line in the four episodes of Tara I’ve seen that is as well-written as the cutting remark Bruce Dern’s abusive compound-polygamist Frank says to his son Bill (Bill Paxton) in this Sunday’s season premiere. Disdainful of Bill’s decision to live The Principle (as the characters refer to polygamy) in well-appointed suburbia as if he were better than the hillbilly ultra-traditional community he came from, Frank barks out, “You think you’re modern, but you’re just broken!”
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It’s a line that gets at the fractured heart of a series that seems to get better and better with each season, exploring issues of openness in religious belief, economic betterment and emotional escape that are as relevant and chilling as ever. For a show with an off-putting premise — a way of life repellent to most of society — it smartly avoids cheap shock by testing the limits of how much its faith-gripped characters can endure without sacrificing our sympathy for them as human in need of warmth, love and security.
Season three starts with a lot of balls in the air for the Henricksons, who include sister-wives Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn), Nicki (Chloë Sevigny) and Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin). Bill is trying to build the gaming business he believes will give the family financial strength should his chain of home-improvement stores falter in the wake of his increasing exposure as a polygamist. Pained yet feisty first wife Barb, meanwhile, finds herself revisiting old concerns about where her needs and Bill’s needs intersect. Reproachful and vindictive Nicki continues to struggle with mainstream assimilation and how many ties she should keep to the compound existence she left, while Margene has gone from petulant woman-child to emboldened saleswoman, whether hawking video-poker machines or egging Bill to add lonely Serbian waitress Ana (Branka Katic) as a fourth wife.
But generations past and future continue to pose cohesion problems for the Henricksons, from the nasty compound rift that has put elderly cult prophet Roman Grant (Harry Dean Stanton) in jail and his creepy son Alby (Matt Ross) in a position of power, to Barb and Bill’s eldest daughter, Sarah (Amanda Seyfried), looking for any way to rebel from what she increasingly views as an unhealthy home situation. This is a show with at least a dozen wonderful performances to brag about — especially Sevigny, Tripplehorn, Seyfried, Ross and the incomparable Grace Zabriskie as Bill’s scheming, scrappy mom — and a storytelling acumen that leaves room for suspense and satire, heartfelt scenes and bone-rattling dread. Big Love may not have the Zeitgeisty juju of other cable shows, but to borrow the characters’ wife-acquisitive terminology, you’d do well to hear its testimony. Surely you have room for one more sister show?
UNITED STATES OF TARA: Showtime, Sundays, 10 p.m.
BIG LOVE: HBO, Sundays, 9 p.m.