Monday, January 19, 2009

The United States of Tara

You know, I really should be sitting around rewatching all of season 4 of Lost (AGAIN) or blogging endlessly about that mindblowing premiere of BSG, but The Movie Network and HBO Canada have been keeping me far too busy by having a LOT of good shows premiering this weekend. The latest begins tonight.

A new series from Showtime (who brought us the excellence of Dexter), The United States of Tara is about a housewife (Toni Collette) who has suffered from a severe multiple personality disorder her entire life. Her husband (John Corbett, of Northern Exposure and Sex and the City fame) has dealt with it for 17 years, and their two children have just learned to live with it. The episode opens with Tara having a fit into a camcorder because she's just found evidence of her daughter's sexual activities in her daughter's backpack, and we later discover that moments of high stress bring out the other personalities. And with that, she turns into T, the teenager who everyone in the family actually really likes, even if she's crass and has a tendency to fly into fits. But hey, she's got mom's credit card and none of her moral centre, so the daughter is happy.

In fact, everyone is happy, except Tara, who has to deal with whatever her "alters" did while she was trapped inside, unable to emerge. She knows T will say and do terrible things that will humiliate her, and even though her family doesn't look at the alters as being Tara in any way, she is upset by the lack of control. Just when she has it together again, she sees something that stresses her out once again, and boom, here comes Buck, the rude, racist, sexist, horrible, chain-smokin', truck-drivin' son of a bitch who calls the son gay and grabs the asses of her daughter's female friends. But Buck has his advantages, and by the end of this character my husband and I were howling with laughter. By the second episode, however, you start to see the effect the alters are having on the children. Especially when prim, proper Alice shows up, a 1950s take-no-shit housewife.

I think Toni Collette is genius, and she shines in this show. Once she moves into one of the alters, you really don't see Tara anymore, but the other personality that has invaded. I didn't see Buck as a man trapped in a woman's body, or as Toni Collette playing him, but as the beer-swilling asshole that he really was. That's talent. John Corbett is great as the husband who has learned to live with the personalities and the rules that come with them, and his problem is trying to fend off the other people outside of the family who haven't come to grips with her condition. The show is created and written by Diablo Cody, who wrote Juno (and writes a monthly column in Entertainment Weekly that is always entertaining) and the dialogue is crisp and fresh, just like in Juno. The music is all by the Eels, which is awesome, so fans of E should be tuning in.

One thing that's always irritated me with HBO series is they're always so brilliant, but the pilots are usually terrible (the exception is Big Love, which was awesome from the get-go). But Showtime always manages to pull us in right from the beginning, the The United States of Tara (get it?) is a show that will become a weekly must-see in our house. The show premieres tonight on The Movie Network at 9pm EST.


Jonathan said...

The poster for the show has a look or outfit based on the character. In the show, is she actually changing into the outfit, or is the show putting her in the outfit to make it easier on the viewer to follow who she is?

Nikki Stafford said...

Jonathan: She actually changes into the outfit. When she's the other character, she believes completely that she is that character. So if you woke up one morning and were wearing women's clothes (which is what happens when she turns into Buck) then you'd immediately change into men's clothes. Or, maybe... you wouldn't. :P

A.G.Wooding said...

Wow everything about this pilot sounds awesome, I just hope it's deemed good enough to come to the UK. (A shiver went down my spine when I realised the LOST timer is on 1:08, that's creepy). :D

Jazzygirl said...

So I watched this last night and....I'm unsure if I like it. I love Toni Collette. I thought she was brilliant in "In Her Shoes". But this show just didn't pull me in like I thought it would. I felt we were plopped down in the middle of a story that I thought would be so interesting, but instead was confusing and almost campy at times. I felt like Toni's acting was forced. Nikki, I know you thought it was great but I just didn't "feel" the alters. And the acceptance of the alters by the family was just weird to me. I mean, I understand they have learned to live with it, but it just didn't seem "right". I'm probably not expressing my thoughts correcting but sadly, it didn't grab me. I might give it one more shot if I remember to watch it. Although I think the normal time slot is at 10pm which will probably rule me out since I get up early for work. I could DVR it but I already have so many other shows I watch. Oh, and I thought 30 min was way too short. Just as I was sort of getting into it, it was over. The end just came and I was like "huh?".
Anyway, that's my review for what it's worth. :)

Nikki Stafford said...

Jazzy: Thanks for the review! I would suggest sticking around. My only worry after the first ep was that it might be too saccharine. I mean, it's bad enough if your mom has mood swings, but if she turns into other people it's a whole other thing, and what kid could NOT have problems with that. In episode 2, you find out the downside to the alters.

I like that we were plopped in the middle of the story. It means the series will be all about learning who these people are, and by episode 4, which I watched last night, you begin to piece together her early life and how difficult all of this has always been for her to deal with.

I like that the series removes the stigma of mental illness, and suggests that maybe someone with a severe disorder doesn't have to be shut away in a home somewhere, and really does deserve a good life if she can surround herself with people who are willing to help her do that.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of a woman going through 'changes'. I wonder if you've seen Being Erica. It's a new CBC show about a young woman who travels back in time to 'fix' things in her life that went wrong - though things don't end up quite as fixed as she hoped they would. I'm loving it more each week.