Judge Clark Douglas has an alter ego named Henry. Henry's the one who wrote all those reviews you didn't like.
"I'm not any of those people!"
Facts of the Case
Tara (Toni Collette, In Her Shoes) is a middle-aged wife and mother. Most of the time, she's a perfectly average woman. She's married to a landscaper named Max (John Corbett, Northern Exposure), she has a teenage daughter named Kate (Brie Larson, 13 Going on 30) and a teenage son named Marshal (Keir Gilchrist, The Rocker). But she's also much, much more than that. Tara suffers from multiple personality disorder, meaning that sometimes she's a sassy teenager named T, sometimes she's a conservative '50s housewife named Alice, and sometimes she's even an uncouth redneck man named Buck. Tara and her family are continuing on a seemingly never-ending journey to discover just what event in Tara's past caused the disorder. To make matters even more complicated, a new "alter" may be lurking around in Tara's psyche. Welcome to the United States of Tara.
Though writer Diablo Cody's cinematic follow-up to the award-winning Juno was the oddball horror flick Jennifer's Body, those looking for more of Cody's brand of snappy, empathetic, quirky writing will probably be better served checking out Showtime's United States of Tara. Cody wrote or co-wrote every episode, and her already-distinctive voice has a certain way of giving the proceedings a very distinct flavor. If you're one of those reactionary Cody-haters that cringe upon hearing a phrase like, "Shut your gob," you might not dig it. However, look past the too-hip-for-yesterday dialogue (or don't, if you don't mind it), and you'll find a compelling program.
The aspect of the program that has received the most praise and attention is (understandably) Toni Collette's tour-de-force performance as Tara and her many alter egos. Collette is certainly impressive, veering with precision and skill between the trashy T, the rude Buck and the holier-than-thou Alice, but to tell you the truth, it's Collette's considerably more "ordinary" work as Tara that I admired the most. Here is a woman in a truly unique situation; fully aware of her mental situation and yet positively incapable of doing anything to change it. There's something intensely affecting in Collette's subdued despair about the fact that she has already lost so much of her life to being inhabited by these other people.
The tone of the program is not too dissimilar from that of Weeds, one of Showtime's strongest programs. Much like that show, the series has a way of veering from tense humor to explicitly hilarious humor to serious drama, and it more or less finds a solid balance between these elements. The multiple personality disorder is played for comedy as frequently as for drama, though it never feels like they're crossing a line and exploiting the condition in an inappropriate manner. That's not to say that all of the comedy works (more on that in a moment), but I don't feel like it's misguided in terms of intent. Like Weeds, United States of Tara is breezy fun that occasionally packs a punch but mostly is just fun viewing.
The rest of the cast performs impressively, particularly young Keir Gilchrist as Marshal. Gilchrist gives us one of television's most distinct and unique teenagers, an intensely intelligent young man with tastes not too dissimilar to Monty Burns of The Simpsons. He was seemingly born three or four generations too late. He's also got an intense crush on a local pastor's hunky son, one which he's absolutely paranoid of acting on explicitly. Instead, he signs up to participate in the church's "horror house" drama as a desperate attempt to get to know his would-be lover better, which transforms into one the show's most intriguing threads.
John Corbett also turns in solid work as Tara's easy-going husband, who might have been described as "long-suffering" if he actually found her condition to be any sort of burden. Rosemary Dewitt (Mad Men) plays Tara's slightly kooky sister in an engaging manner, though her kookiness is slow to reveal itself. There are also solid guest turns from a charming Patton Oswalt (Ratatouille) and a pushy Fred Ward (The Player).
The transfer is okay, though nothing spectacular. I'm sort of disappointed that the show isn't getting a Blu-ray release, because I've certainly seen far better as far as standard-def television is concerned. Detail is the most lacking element, as background detail often seems too indistinct. There's also a bit of color bleeding from time to time. Otherwise, things are okay. Audio is strong throughout, though United States of Tara tends to be a pretty quiet show. The superb main title song comes through with particularly impressive warmth and clarity. The Cody-centric supplements include "Sitting Down with Diablo Cody," a commentary on one episode featuring Cody, a featurette spotlighting "Tara's Alters," and podcast interviews with various cast members. In addition, oddly you enough, you get the first episode of the third season of The Tudors, plus the ability to download the second episode and two episodes of Californication. Unusual.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The primary thing that bothers about United States of Tara is just how thinly-drawn all of Tara's alters are. Collette performs them with conviction and gusto, but the fact remains that they are all pretty one-dimensional stereotypes. Fortunately, no single alter gets enough screen time that this becomes a huge problem, but it's still a pretty significant setback.
Engaging and entertaining, United States of Tara kicks off with a solid debut season. There's room for improvement, but I'll definitely be back for the next round.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Showtime Entertainment
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