Saturday, January 9, 2010

On DVD: "United States of Tara- Season 1"

Diablo Cody has (inexplicably) become such an acquired taste (I don’t know anyone who’s on the fence about her—everyone seems to either love or hate her stuff) that it will, I suppose, comfort her critics to hear how uncharacteristic the writing for her series United States of Tara is. She writes her screenplays with a distinctive style and voice, and her dialogue is quirkily hers, which seems to be the primary complaint of those who disliked her Oscar-winning script for Juno (and her strangely unsuccessful follow-up film, Jennifer’s Body). Those folks may be relieved that she’s dialed her style back a bit for Tara; though there are still Cody-esque touches in the dialogue (like the discussion of “gentlemen’s time”, or the daughter’s complaint that her mother makes her feel like she in “a Lifetime-lady-tampon movie”), it’s much more subtle than her previous work. The downside (for those of us who are fans, that is) is that it also somewhat flavorless, comparatively speaking. It’s a good show, but you keep waiting for it to become a great one.

What is not in dispute is that the series is a terrific showcase for its star, the talented Toni Collette. She plays Tara, a mural painter, wife, and mother with dissociative identity disorder; when she has moments of stress, aggravation, or other unexpected triggers, her personality switches to one of her “alters.” There’s “T,” the troublemaking teenage girl; “Alice,” the 1950s-style homemaker; and “Buck,” the beer-swilling Vietnam vet. As the series begins, Tara has recently gone off her meds, and her family is still adjusting to the visits from the “alters”; her husband Max (John Corbett) mostly keeps a level head, though her daughter Kate (Brie Larson) and son Marshall (Keir Gilchrist) find mom’s little outbursts and acting-outs are loaded with potential for teenage embarrassment. Meanwhile, Tara’s sister Charmaine (Rosemarie DeWitt) continues to resent her sibling, openly expressing her belief that Tara might be faking the whole thing.

United States of Tara airs on Showtime, and is more than a little reminiscent of that network’s Weeds—another half-hour comedy/drama about a mother on the edge (some of the similarities are more obvious than others; through much of the season, for example, Marshall basically comes off like a gay Shane Botwin). Thankfully, as with that show, we are spared too much set-up; the pilot episode begins with Tara already off her meds and the “alters” already a part of her family life. Some of the early exposition is pretty clunky, but the series progresses surely; the writing gets stronger and more confident, and the supporting characters get more interesting.

Cody is credited as series creator and writer of five of the first season’s twelve episodes; other members of the talented writing staff include This American Life contributor Alexa Junge and Six Feet Under alum Jill Soloway. Brett Baer and Dave Finkel pen one of the season’s best episodes, “Transition,” in which Tara and Charmaine’s parents pay a visit for Charmaine’s birthday; it is a beautifully realized portrayal of family tension and awkwardness. Other episodes feel incomplete, though. On the Cody-written “Alterations,” the idea of having Charmaine bond with Buck is a good one, but it’s not really fleshed out; we understand what’s supposed to happen, but the end result doesn’t match what’s on screen, and the episode plays more like an outline. (It does have one exquisitely Cody-infused line: when Charmaine awakens from getting a boob job, the nurse tells her, “Dr. Pete is updating his video blog, but he wanted me to tell you, your girls look gorgeous!”)

Perhaps the nicest quality of the writing is the low-key, matter-of-fact family dynamic—lesser writers might amp up the family drama to a point of screeching soap opera melodrama, but Max and the kids love and accept their mom, and understand that ultimately, these little episodes are part of the package. This is where Corbett’s contribution is particularly valuable; he delicately underplays his gee-whiz likability, wisely interpreting his character as the straight man and resisting the urge to wink at the audience. Larson and Gilchrist are similarly sympathetic, each of them getting some interesting beats to play in the back half of the season. DeWitt, so good in Rachel Getting Married and the first season of Mad Men, is somewhat underused.

The cast is nicely fleshed out with terrific comic actors in small supporting roles—Tony Hale (Arrested Development) and Ken Marino (The State) each do an episode, while Nate Corddry (The Daily Show, Studio 60) does an extended turn as a skeezy restaurant manager who is a bit of a ticking bomb. Stand-up extraordinaire Patton Oswalt also pops up in several episodes as Max’s business partner; while he is expectedly funny (his conversation with Max about truck nutz is priceless), he also gets a killer scene in the penultimate episode, hinting at the dramatic chops showcased in last year’s Big Fan.

But it is, without a doubt, Collette’s show. The show’s construct sounds like a reach, and in their conception, her alter egos sound like the kind of broad stereotypes that would encourage shameless overacting. But her energetic, grounded performance brings the series together. The characterizations are distinctive and memorable, finely tuned and entertaining without going for easy laughs. Some of her finest moments, in fact, come in the transitions—the subtle changes to her body language and facial expressions that signify the changes brewing in the bubbling cauldron of her brain. It’s a dazzling piece of work, strong enough to cover the occasional flaws and shortcuts in the scripts.

In the final first season episode of United States of Tara, Charmaine tells Marshall, “I can’t believe how normal you are.” He replies, “I can’t believe you’re so damaged, you think I’m normal.” It’s a nice moment that sums up this well-intentioned if uneven series. The performances are the main reason to seek it out—Collette is a revelation, and the supporting cast is sterling. The writing, while often high-caliber, is also spotty and somewhat colorless; hopefully Cody will take more risks and have some more fun in seasons to come.

"United States of Tara- Season 1" is now available on DVD.

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