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Dead Tree Alert 2: January Is the New September

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Jordin Althaus/Showtime

Jordin Althaus/Showtime

There is, as I like to say, a lot of TV on television this month. In this week’s TIME, I have an omnibus review of Lost, Friday Night Lights, Trust Me, Lie to Me, Big Love and, reprinted below, this weekend’s debut of United States of Tara:



Showtime’s United States of Tara (Sundays, 10 p.m. E.T.), on the other hand, is not something you’ve seen before: a comedy with four protagonists all sharing the same body. The title character (Toni Collette) is a Kansas woman with two kids and three alternative personalities, or “alters”: T, a trash-mouthed 16-year-old; Buck, a gun-loving redneck (and a dude); and Alice, a ’50s-style prim housewife. Which makes for complications, as when hubby Max (John Corbett) must spurn T’s advances because “Tara wouldn’t like it.”

Created by Diablo Cody (Juno), Tara is funny, fascinating and frustrating. As in Cody’s pregnancy comedy, too many characters speak the same pop-culturese, and each persona is a flat-out cliché. But family members’ interaction with the alters is believable: you get a real sense that they’re accustomed to Tara’s condition, having developed different strategies for dealing with each alter. The problem is that the show is too determined to play up its oddity, down to having Tara change costume with every transformation, which actually detracts from Collette’s amazing character shifts–she adopts a new personality just by changing expression–and makes Tara seem like a Tracey Ullman special. Tara has the potential to be a great comedy about identity, but it needs to be less self-conscious about its strangeness.

Read the rest here. A few other observations about Tara that I didn’t have room to include: 

* The supporting characters are uniformly well-cast, especially Brie Larson as Tara’s teen daughter. Even John Corbett—well, he’s John Corbett, which means he plays Tara’s husband like a big ol’ loyal golden retriever, but it works in this role. 

* One quibble I sometimes have with Midwest-set TV shows: no real discernable sense of place. Tara takes place in Kansas, but if there weren’t a few mentions of that, I’d have thought it was something like Agrestic, the California suburb of Weeds. Which is surprising, since Juno had a much more definite sense of place. Whet her that’s a question of budget and locations or something else, I’m not sure—but on The Office, for instance, even though the California exterior shots looks like California, the writing feels Scranton. 

* Speaking of Weeds, I contrast the show with Big Love, because Big Love is returning, but Weeds is probably as good a comparison, and a show for Tara to aspire toward. Like Tara, it balances comic and dramatic elements in a far-fetched situation, but it manages to balance its tone and keep a consistent sense of the stakes. In the early episodes of Tara, the stakes sometimes seem unclear—in one scene Buck seems almost threatening to the family (especially toward Tara’s teen son, whom he insults), but a moment later, he seems harmlessly blustery. If Tara can get its balance, it could be as good or better than Weeds, because its thematic ambitions—illustrating how women are pushed into different personae by the demands of their lives—are even higher.