Diablo Cody’s mannered, quip-heavy (and Oscar-winning) screenplay for 2007’s Juno was generally a love-it-or-hate-it prospect; as many people despised its pop culture-saturated, catchphrase-generating self-consciousness as loved its expressiveness and emotional authenticity. If 90 minutes of Cody dialogue was polarizing, just imagine what an entire 12-episode season of a TV show will be like.
That’s pretty much what you’re getting with United States of Tara (Showtime, Sundays, 10 p.m.), a new comedy created by Cody, who also wrote five of the forthcoming dozen episodes. Although no less a presence than Steven Spielberg was responsible for the original idea (and remains onboard as an executive producer), the makeup of the show is pure Cody: There’s the sarcastic, worldly teen girl; her gay, classic Hollywood-loving brother; some clueless but well-meaning parents; and plenty of casual, matter-of-fact sexual references. And, oh yeah, one of those clueless parents, suburban Kansas mom Tara, just happens to suffer from dissociative identity disorder, better known to mainstream audiences as multiple personalities.
Tara’s four different sides are the show’s main hook, but strangely enough, they’re also its weakest link. Toni Collette clearly relishes the acting showcase the role affords her, and she does her strongest work as Tara’s dominant persona, the overwhelmed wife and mother who has to deal with a debilitating mental illness on top of the everyday stresses of raising two teenagers and keeping a marriage alive. Tara is sympathetic in her struggle to understand what has caused her condition, and equally so in her more mundane efforts to create a strong home life for her family.
But Tara only gets to be Tara maybe half to two-thirds of the time, depending on the episode. The rest of the time, she’s one of her other personas (called “alters”), which affords Collette plenty of opportunity for hamminess. She doesn’t have trouble differentiating petulant teen T, old-fashioned homemaker Alice and truck-driving misogynist Buck from each other and from Tara, and that’s certainly a substantial feat. But the way she does so is by making each one into a caricature, not so much a personality as a single exaggerated dimension. It’s arguable how realistic United States is in its depiction of DID, but even if you accept it at face value, the show portrays the concept in such a broad way that it’s hard to buy into Tara (all of Tara) as a genuine human being.
Then again, the rest of the cast isn’t quite there, either, and for that the blame falls as much on Cody’s precious writing as it does on the actors. Juno set up its own little insular world; you could believe that the title character and her friends spoke in this heightened style as a unique way of communicating with each other. But the world of United States is more expansive and more mundane, and not all of the actors (especially Brie Larson, playing teen daughter Kate) can pull off Cody’s tortuous dialogue the way Ellen Page did. Of the four episodes available for preview, by far the best was the one Cody didn’t write; it still echoed some of her style, but was toned down enough to seem almost real.
And that’s what makes or breaks a show like this; high-concept family dramas and comedies on cable, from Big Love to The Riches, The Sopranos to Weeds, may not exactly be realistic, but they work because we believe in the characters as people, in how they relate to each other. United States of Tara is really no more fantastical than those other shows, but when the people in it (and the people in Tara) come off so false, that suspension of disbelief dissipates immediately, and all we’re left with is contrived absurdity and purple prose masquerading as conversation.