(For the next several days, some of our writers will be swapping duties on some of our most popular shows. Some of them will like what they see, but for different reasons. Some of them will have vastly different opinions from the regular reviewers. And some of them won’t be all that different. It’s Second Opinions Week at TV Club.)
United States of Tara is a show that aggravates the hell out of me. Part of my problem with it is that, for me, the show feels like a tug of war between two powerful but mismatched talents: Toni Collette, an honest, unflashy actress with a tremendous range who I've hardly ever seen strike a false or unconvincing note, and the show's creator, Diablo Cody, a dealer in gimmickry whose writing is at least 70 % tinsel. Cody's work does make intermittent attempts to convey something about the feelings of human beings, and once in a while, she can make you laugh. Much more than once in a while, she can make your jaw drop while you think, did that line really make it past the first draft, or is what I'm watching the first draft? Cody doesn't write every episode of Tara, of course. (She mostly just drops in for season premieres and finales.)
The script for tonight's episode is credited to David Iverson, who's written for the series before. But the show strives to maintain a simulation of Cody's voice, with its over-bright turns of phrase and pop culture references. There are also lines that seem meant to be outrageous--Rosemarie DeWitt asking Patton Oswalt, after he's invited her mother (Pamela Reed) to meet their new child, "Why would you want our innocent baby to see the face of pure evil?"; Tara's son watching an old home video of his parents hanging out when they were younger and muttering, "My father is an actual retarded person"--but that wouldn't be out of place on Rules of Engagement. The freshest jokes on tonight's episode were actually the pop culture stuff, as when DeWitt explained that her concerns about whether her implants might make it unhealthy for her to breast-feed her baby stemmed from something she'd heard on the Mel Gibson tapes ("He's not wrong about everything!") and when Tara, talking about her non-relationship with her mother, wished that the two of them could be more like Angelina Jolie and Jon Voight. ("If she wants to say something to me, she can tell it to People magazine.") Maybe, in a perfect world, Iverson would be writing for Jay Leno.
There's a bigger problem with this show than dialogue that pokes you in the eye, though. Cody's weakness for bright shiny toys in place of real characters and dramatic situations is right there in the set-up, in Tara's ongoing battle over control of her life with her "alters", the other personalities who keep taking charge of her body. Playing someone with dissociative identity disorder gives an actor a chance to pull out all the stops and paint a mural, in primary colors, all over the screen. (It's also practically a Golden Ticket redeemable for an Emmy or an Academy Award. Collette has already cashed hers in, as did Joanne Woodward for The Three Faces of Eve and Sally Field for the TV film Sybil.) Tara's alters are conceived very broadly, as if Cody once had someone like Kristen Wiig in mind for the lead.
Even when Tara has turned into Buck, the male redneck with a violent streak, or Alice, the cartoon of June Cleaver. Collette's acting makes them as real as she possibly can. That's admirable, but I've never been convinced that it's what the producers intended, and the show might be more fun if it had a star who, instead of trying to make this nonsense believable, embraced the sheer campiness of it all and turned the show into her own personal Halloween parade. On the other hand, the moments that have stayed with me over the course of the show's three seasons are the quiet ones where Collette has actually been able to suggest how disorienting and soul-crushing it might be to have other people taking your body out for joy rides, such as a moment in the pilot when Tara wakes up to discover that her wild-teenager personality has painted her toenails black, and the big finish of a recent episode, when she came to in an exam hall to find writing all over arms and her Abnormal Psych instructor (Eddie Izzard) staring at her in wonder.
So far, the interplay between Collette and Izzard has been the best reason for watching this season. (This is not the compliment it could be, given that both Kate and Marshall are trapped in subplots that threaten to remain non-starters. The device of having Kate become a flight attendant after her plans to take a job in Japan are derailed by the earthquake could also stand as a textbook illustration of the concept of Too Soon.) Luckily, Izzard is a past master of playing his role believably while keeping one foot in campiness, so he can connect with Collette on her terms while introducing some new colors to the show. (He plays his more florid lines as an expression of the doctor's own enjoyment of theatricality. He enjoys playing the learned crank, and probably spends his time off-campus taking notes while watching Educating Rita and The Paper Chase.)
Six episodes in, though, his character's motives could still use some defining. Izzard's character is eager to collaborate with Tara on a study of her condition, despite the fact that, like every other psychiatrist now who doesn't have a movie deal, he doesn't believe that dissociative identity disorder actually exists. (Referring to one of his past triumphs, he tells her, "That boy stopped thinking he was a kite when he convinced him he wasn't a kite." "It's not the same thing," says Tara. "I'm not a kite." "And neither was he!" he replies, not unreasonably.) Given that the show clearly shares Tara's conviction that her alters are real, is Izzard's doctor meant to be a villain? Or is something even weirder being set up? The final scene of him transcribing a tape of Tara's voice and repeatedly playing back a passage in which she says "You will not win" plays like a scene in a horror movie, as if Izzard had gotten his materials jumbled up and was listening to the tapes from Session 9. Is yet another alter about to make its presence known, and if so, will its emergence necessitate the services of an exorcist?
Still, the scene in tonight's episode that does the best job of summing up Tara for me comes when Tara, who's been allowing her alters to bubble to the surface to keep her mother at bay, sits down next to her mom and offers to have the heart-to-heart talk they've both been postponing indefinitely. Reed apologizes for her past failings and says that she's trying to change; Collette tells her, "If you have something to say, I'll listen. As me." It's a very touching exchange, and then, just when you think the two of them are gonna to have a real scene together, the show cuts away to Kate's latest meet-cute. Tara has too much talent on board not to keep threatening to go someplace good, and too much glibness at the control center to keep from blocking off the roads.