Toni Collette Shines on Intriguing ‘United States of Tara’
Television Rating: 3.5/5.0
CHICAGO – Writer Diablo Cody, the Oscar-winning scribe of “Juno,” Executive Producer Steven Spielberg, and the Oscar-nominated actress Toni Collette have joined forces for the impressive and intriguing “United States of Tara,” airing this Sunday, January 18th on Showtime.
“United States of Tara” displays the fingerprints of three primary creative forces - the snappy dialogue of Cody, the unbelievable range of Collette, and Showtime’s creative impetus to bring us people living outside the norm but hiding in plain sight. Nancy Botwin on “Weeds,” Dexter Morgan on “Dexter,” Hannah/Belle on “Secret Diary of a Call Girl,” and Tara Gregson on “United States of Tara” may look like you and me but they live distinctly abnormal lives.
Toni Collette as Tara in United States Of Tara.
Photo credit: Nigel Parry/Showtime
What makes Tara Gregson’s (Toni Collette) life so unique is that she isn’t alone inside her own body. As so many kids have said, “Mom’s just not herself today.” But in Tara’s life, it can be sadly true. Tara has dissociative identity disorder. There are three personalities that often come to the forefront and take over the lives of Tara and her family - “T,” a teenager fond of thongs and drugs, “Buck,” a beer-swilling Vietnam vet prone to violence, and “Alice,” a housewife straight out of a 1950s advertising campaign.
Photo credit: Nigel Parry/Showtime
Like a lot of people with DID, Tara’s personalities take over in time of great stress or crisis and most of her family have gotten used to the “other people” living in their house. In the premiere episode, when Tara finds morning after pills in her daughter’s bag, mom understandably freaks out a bit and “T” takes over. Later, when force is called for, “Buck” makes an appearance. I’m not sure that people with real DID use their personalities in such a functional or practical way, but it definitely makes for interesting drama.
The family forced to deal with the “United States of Tara” include Max (John Corbett), her loving and supportive husband, Kate (Brie Larson), her rebellious daughter, and Marshall (Keir Gilchrist), her kind-hearted and intellectual son. Tara’s insecure sister Charmaine (Rosemarie Dewitt, recently seen in “Rachel Getting Married”) struggles to understand her sibling’s illness and great comedic actors like Tony Hale and Patton Oswalt guest-star.
At times, “United States of Tara” can feel too self-conscious and too in love with its own concept. The subtext of the show, a modern woman dealing with the stresses of modern life with multiple personalities, can be a little too clever for its own good as is Cody’s controversial ear for dialogue. Marshall, in particular, with his references to Thelonious Monk and George Cukor in just the first episode, feels almost like Cody’s reaction to criticisms that the teenage characters in “Juno” sounded more like twenty or thirtysomethings. “You thought that was adult dialogue coming out of a kid’s mouth?!? Check this out.”
Most importantly, Cody and her team of writers need to find something interesting underneath the personalities of its heroine to emphasize equally. “Weeds” works because it is about a lot more than just a pot-dealing mom in the ‘burbs. “United States of Tara” needs to find characters as interesting as the ones inside Tara Gregson, not just responses to them. The supporting cast is very good, particularly Dewitt and Corbett, but they are as yet underdeveloped and I worry they will always take a back seat to the chaos in the front.
Photo credit: Jordin Althaus/Showtime
As for that front, it’s something to behold. Collette has always had an underrated range, giving great performances in “Muriel’s Wedding,” “The Sixth Sense,” “About a Boy,” “Japanese Story,” “In Her Shoes,” “Little Miss Sunshine,” and HBO’s “Tsunami: The Aftermath”. She’s simply a fantastic actress and she does work here worthy of Emmy consideration.
On paper, Tara may sound like a gimmicky role, something anyone could knock out of the park, and that may be true, but what’s difficult about the over-the-top character is making her unusual situation feel genuine and Collette does that from scene one. She’s perfect and, easily, the main reason to watch the show. It’s a performance good enough to make every flaw of the show easier to overlook.
At least through its first four episodes, “United States of Tara” works and, while it may not be there quite yet, it is easy to see this show becoming one of the best on television with just a little tinkering. With an actress as talented as Toni Collette in your lead, greatness is always possible.