The United States of Tara, debuting tonight on Showtime, is an interesting misfire for a network that seems dedicated to making interesting misfires. The debuts of Brotherhood and Dexter a few years back made it seem like Showtime might have finally learned its lessons from years of trying to be HBO and failing miserably. Too many Showtime series have acted like the things that made HBO series successful were their adult content and their central gimmicks, so we got things like The L Word, which was pretty much just, “Hey, What if We Made a Show about Lesbians?: The Series” or Huff, which tossed just about everything it could from the HBO template into a blender and still ended up with something less than tempting. Tara has a few interesting parts, but it’s pretty much “Hey, What if We Made a Show about Multiple Personalities?: The Series,” and that, much to its detriment, tends to step on the interesting stuff.
Tara is the brainchild of Steven Spielberg and Diablo Cody, and Cody wrote the script for the pilot (the only episode I’ve seen). Cody’s most famous for her Oscar-winning script for the film Juno, and the director of the pilot, Craig Gillespie, directed another of 2007’s quirk-coms, Lars and the Real Girl. Juno was a pretty good little movie that somehow got hyped into something that was suddenly too big to be sustainable, and Lars and the Real Girl was the best of this recent wave of Amerindies that rip off Wes Anderson, so there was reason to believe that Tara might rise above what seemed to be a fairly limiting premise. The idea of doing a show about a regular mom and wife who suffers from multiple-personality disorder is almost too cute, conflating as it does a psychological condition that’s very television friendly with the idea that the modern working mother is many different people all at once, but Juno and Lars both grounded cutesy premises with a solid sense of the Midwest as both a place and a way of life, and Tara’s set in Kansas. So I remained hopeful!
And a lot of Tara almost works in spite of itself. The performances are pretty uniformly good (well, John Corbett is just playing the part he always plays, but he works well enough in that role here), and Toni Collette is as excellent as you’d expect as the main character. Collette clearly relishes the ability to play three different characters in any given episode and develop what will probably add up to a dozen “alters” or so over the course of a season. Rosemarie DeWitt is sadly wasted as Tara’s sister in the pilot, but one imagines she signed on because there was better stuff on the horizon, so just having her there is a good sign at this point. In addition, Cody’s script has a very definite sense of what it’s LIKE to live in a Midwestern suburb, from the things people consider important to the ways they relate to each other within their family units. And, for all of the cutesiness, there are moments in the pilot when it really does feel like Cody, Gillespie and the cast considered the real, emotional weight of what it would be like to have to live with this condition in your life, whether you had to suffer from that condition or whether you were married to someone who did.
The problem is that every time the series seems to veer towards an honest exploration of these issues, it suddenly changes course. Tara shifts into another alternate personality or we learn that her husband is just THAT GOOD of a guy that he would NEVER consider cheating on her or we find out that the personality that seemed threatening towards Tara’s son (one of the more interesting characters on the show) abruptly shifts into someone with a heart of gold. The series always tiptoes up to the edge of realism and then steps just as quickly away from it. Obviously, the show doesn’t have to have Tara’s husband cheat on her to be “realistic,” but he should at least be tempted by the possibility or find some sort of strain placed on his marriage by what’s going on. The series wants to be TV AND HBO, and it never quite manages the blend in a way that would mark it as a success.
Still, it’s usually a bad idea to write off a show like this on the basis of only the pilot, and with so many moving parts and a very strong performance from Collette at the show’s center, there’s a chance that it could find its voice as the series goes along. It actually reminds me of Six Feet Under in a few ways, in that that show was too broad by far in its early going but managed to find a better place to exist after Alan Ball’s original conceptions for the show were taken in new directions by other writers. I was never a huge Six Feet Under fan (which is another column for another time), but that show better managed the kinds of tonal shifts Tara seems to want to pull off (the series might do well to figure out what worked there and apply it liberally here).
Speaking of HBO, the network also has a couple of debuts tonight, including the still mostly terrific Big Love and the goofy little comedy Flight of the Conchords. My Big Love review will go live after the episode airs tonight, but Conchords deserves a little love, since it was one of TV’s best comedies last season, and it’s been gone far too long (though it does feel as if the show’s media profile has inexplicably risen since it disappeared for over a year). Conchords has little desire to be anything beyond a silly little riff on the perils of seeking fame and what it’s like to be nearly broke and living in the city, but it does that great, goofy sitcom thing where all of the characters live by their own logic, which seems to make perfect sense within their own milieu (see also: Green Acres, any series starring Bob Newhart, and Newsradio, whose creator, Paul Simms, is a consultant on Conchords).
The second season continues the fairly great plotting that the first season embraced (it’s hard to do shaggy dog stories this shaggy without losing the audience—see also: Entourage), but the actual band at the center of the show burned through all of its material in season one, so the songs are now quite a bit weaker. On the other hand, I’m not so sure the songs are as important to the show as they were early in season one (when they were easily the best things about any given episode). The series would do well to wean itself off of the songs gradually, perhaps including one every handful of episodes so that they can still feel like a vital part of the show instead of something we have to get through to get back to the real reason we tune in: the strange, singular universe the series inhabits.
Fortunately, everything else is still on target. Jemaine Clement and Bret Mckenzie remain appealing naifs at the show’s center, and Rhys Darby and Kristen Schaal quietly turn in two of the best comic performances on TV from week to week as the beleaguered Murray and the manic Mel respectively. Plus, it’s just such great fun to hang out in this unique spin on New York City, and at the top of the work week, that’s more than enough of a reason to tune in.
House contributor Todd VanDerWerff is the publisher of the pop culture blog South Dakota Dark.