For a good portion of its first season, Showtime’s United States Of Tara seems like it’s going to try to turn a serious psychological disorder into an unending quirkfest. Created by Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody, Tara ladles on the pseudo-hip dialogue and pop-culture references, attempting to treat serious subject matter with tongue poking through cheek. It’s all the show can do to make sure it doesn’t turn the title character’s dissociative identity disorder (multiple personalities, in layman’s terms) into a gimmick worthy of the Fonz being able to turn on jukeboxes by hitting them.
But a curious thing happens as the first season goes on. Somewhere around the terrific sixth episode, “Transition,” United States Of Tara stops being a show about how wacky multiple personalities might be, and starts being a show about how one woman’s psychological disorder has both caused turmoil in her family and made them a stronger unit. Maybe that should be expected: Cody’s Juno script similarly loaded up the quirk in the first half and doubled down on the emotion in the back half, and co-showrunner Alexa Junge is famous for sitcom scripts that eventually treat the characters’ emotions with some degree of verisimilitude (including, yes, her scripts for Friends). But a movie script or a single-episode script is different from a full TV season, and Tara runs the risk of losing viewers before it embraces emotional reality.
Fortunately, Tara finds its way to that emotional reality remarkably quickly after that sixth episode, though there are hints it will get there from the second episode on. Some of these characters—the quiet gay son, the daughter who just wants out of town—are stereotypical, to be sure, but Cody, Junge, and their writers give them all revealing storylines, and most of them are interesting. (Only the story of how Tara’s daughter carries on a bored affair with her boss comes off as too flat and predictable.) And the main storyline of Tara’s husband, Max (a slyly winning John Corbett), trying to figure out just why Tara is the way she is gives the whole show a subtle mythology few sitcoms can boast. Even Tara’s hectoring nag of a sister (Rosemarie DeWitt, who seems like she deserves better for much of the season) ends up getting several new shades of nuance toward the season’s end.
Still, United States Of Tara turns on individual viewers’ tolerance for Toni Collette. She’s less mannered as Tara than she can be in other performances, but maybe that’s because she’s channeling all of her mannerisms into Tara’s alternate personalities—most notably slutty teenager T, prim homemaker Alice, and good ol’ boy Buck—and leaving Tara essentially a normal wife and mother who struggles to pull the pieces of her life together. It’s an unusual performance, simultaneously understated and way, way over the top, and it anchors a show as it slowly figures out what it wants to be.
Key features: Lots and lots of Cody, including a sit-down interview with her, an episode commentary, and a brief featurette on Tara’s “alters.” Also, weirdly, the first episode of the third season of The Tudors.