United States of Tara has all the potential in the world. To me, Toni Collette can do no wrong, and to have her playing a woman with dissociative identity disorder (nee multiple personality disorder) in a comedy on Showtime? I'm already sold--then of course you have Steven Spielberg producing it and John Corbett playing her husband, which indicates that the network is for real about this show. The fact that it's created and written by Diablo Cody, however, made me the slightest bit tentative. I enjoyed Juno--I saw it late, after all the hype, good and bad, had washed over me, and was pretty much ready to hate it, but I was surprised to enjoy it. The only thing that bothered me was that the language, which made the character so unique, was so affected yet casual. "Do kids really talk that way?" my dad asked after he saw it three times (I think he likes the daddy-daughter thing). "Sometimes," I said. "But not THAT much." The other thing that irked me about Juno was that this girl was supposed to be an outsider. Yeah, right. If a 16-year-old girl were that confident in herself and her personality, that outgoing, she'd be the class president. The teenagers in UST--Tara's son, Marshall, bratty promiscuous daughter Kate and T, Tara's teenage personality--all have that teens-as-adults-who-are-more-real thing going on. But let's get to the pilot.
The show opens with Collette as Tara Gregson, a painter and midwestern mother of two (as I noted, kind of annoyingly) precocious teens. Tara's speaking to her own video camera, letting us know that she only has a few minutes left of lucidity, as herself, since going off medication, her personalities come out to play. She's stressed out from finding out that her daughter Kate has gotten a prescription for the morning-after pill. We learn that Tara prides herself on being a "hip mom," but that part of her wants to "sew her daughter up." Tara's so riled up that she switches to one of her "alters," T, sort of a parody of the World's Worst Teen. She treats Tara's body like a house left alone by its owners for the weekend, trying on slutty clothes and trying to get Kate to go shopping with Tara's credit card. T refers to a bucket of chicken as "cluck-cluck [whose] hormones can make you grow a third nipple," which stood out to me as a Cody-ism—a kid using synonyms and made-up catchphrases in a writer-y way, but not very realistic dialogue.
We have yet to learn more about Marshall, who appears to be a hip-to-be-square intellectual nerd, but I can't help but hate Kate. She comes home from school and, hearing someone in the house, calls out "Estonian cleaning lady? Mommy?" She's brazenly bad--she gives her dad attitude about acquiring the morning after pill, and complains about Tara, "Why can't she be manic depressive like other moms?" She's 15. Yes, teenagers and have sex and personalities and things like that but I hate overly mouthy, bratty TV teens. I mean I was mouthy and bratty too when I was a teen (sometimes) but not everything out of my mouth was a perfectly polished anti-establishment bon mot.
John Corbett plays Tara's husband Max, and he kind of plays that same laid-back sensitive former-stoner character that we've seen on the other series he's been on. Presented with T, at first he seems annoyed with her eye-rolling flopping-around-on-the-furniture schtick, but when she starts grinding on his crotch, that's another story. They make out for a little bit but then we learn that Tara has a rule where Max can only make love to her as HER, so T says, the way all teens in this show seem to talk, "I hate you for not fucking me."
Tara later returns to herself, only to switch to Buck (one of her three alters, the third, Alice, to be revealed in episode two) when faced with the trauma of seeing Kate being pushed around by her scumbag boyfriend. Buck looks like a sexy butch lesbian but he's actually a middle-aged redneck who likes to pick on Marshall ("tastes homo-made" he remarks, about Marshall's cupcakes) and go shoot guns with Max. After heading with the family to see Kate's ballet recital, Buck takes the opportunity to kick the boyfriend's ass, getting a shiner in the process when Buck informs the kid that he can punch him/her since he's not really hitting Mrs. Gregson).
The pilot suffers from some typical pilot deficiencies, like awkward exposition. When Tara's sister, Charmaine, who lets us know that she thinks that DID is bull, Max says, "It's real Charmy. You grew up with her, you know better than anybody...I've been living with it for 17 years. I'm married to it."
The episode ends on a good line, however--after the fight at the ballet recital, Buck and the rest of the family go bowling. Kate notices how it's odd that Buck, out of all the personalities, is left-handed, and Max quips, "Yeah, that is one weird thing."
I felt like I wanted to know less about Tara's family and more about DID itself. If I was going to get clunky background, I didn't need it to be about Tara’s sister--I'd rather hear whether it's normal for the primary personality to black out when the others are present, and if people with the disorder take precautions in their everyday lives in order to maintain safety (what if they switch while, say, behind the wheel?) But I did like the little details like Tara waking up and rolling her eyes at the black nail polish that T had applied the night before, and her saying "Am I high?" after coming out of some T time.
There's something to be said for Cody's snappy dialogue and the fast pace, but she also needs to learn to keep it in check. As a friend who was watching it with me said, "People aren't always cool like a motherfucking cucumber like that."
UST has tremendous promise but it needs to live up to it. I've watched ahead a few episodes and know that like other series, the show needs some time to grow into itself which I'm looking forward to. I feel like I should love this show, and I'm looking forward to that happening.
--The show features a tiny bit of the types of cutaways we see in Scrubs and Arrested Development, such as a shot of T's MySpace page and the opulent mural Tara’s painting for a client, but thus far this feature is used almost too sparingly.
--I liked Kate retorting to her boyfriend indicating that Tara's messed up: "Well, your mom has implants" and his response: "She got them for her!"
--I didn't understand why Marshall hid his copy of Sybil when Tara came in the room--if they're so open about talking about her multiple personalities, what's wrong with him reading the book?
--"Texting's how I show my love!"