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Showtime's 'United States of Tara': Like Its Heroine, It's Got More than One Personality
March 28, 2011  | By David Bianculli
 
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The third season of Showtime's United States of Tara begins tonight at 10:30 ET -- and this is the year this series vaults to the top echelon of TV's most compelling, complex current series. It may be categorized as a comedy -- but this year, while the laughs remain abundant, Tara's various identity crises make this half-hour show as gripping and thrilling, and as impressive, as an episode of Dexter...

Showtime, like FX, sends out multiple episodes of its series for review, and this year it sent out all 12 half-hours of this new third season of United States of Tara. Shrewd move -- because this season, the plot builds slowly, but very surely, into an inner and outer confrontation of intensely deadly proportions.

When Tara premiered in 2009, the first season was about establishing series creator Diablo Cody's inventive concept for a cable comedy series. Cody, who wrote Juno, basically set out to make The Three Faces of Eve as a weekly series -- following a woman afflicted with what used to be called multiple-personality disorder, trying to cope in suburban Kansas with a caring husband, two fiercely individualistic teen kids, and her own "alters," who emerged at various times of stress to take over Tara's body and either solve or avoid her stressful problems.

Steven Spielberg thought enough of this idea to sign on as an executive producer, but any chance for success would hinge not on the names behind the camera, but the face in front of it. If the starring role wasn't played by someone who could define and embody the various "alters" persuasively, and especially make Tara a real person as well, United States of Tara would be nothing but a showy acting-class gimmick.

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Fortunately for all involved, and especially for viewers, Australian actress Toni Collette was cast in the title role. She was good enough to win the Best Actress Emmy that first season, against some very stiff competition, and she's only gotten better since. This season, with what I've seen her do in these 12 episodes, I can't imagine her not winning again.

If you've seen the show at all, you're familiar with the primary "alters" introduced when the series began. Tara's dissociative identity disorder manifested itself with a trio of alter egos whom Tara's husband Max (John Corbett), children Kate (Brie Larson) and Marshall (Keir Gilchrist) and sister Charmaine (Rosemary DeWitt) have known for years. There's Alice, the prim housewife straight out of a Sixties sitcom; Buck, the beer-swilling, porno-devouring Vietnam vet; and T, the trampy, oversexed teen.

Since then, other characters have emerged. Shoshana is Tara's co-opted approximation of an actual bestselling behavioral therapist. Gimme is a feral, non-verbal bundle of crouching, snarling, id. Chicken is Tara at age 5. That's six different "alter" characters, plus the central role of Tara. And before this new season is over, that number will increase, with significant and scary results.

I don't want to spoil the surprises to come, but there are a few things that can, and should, be mentioned to entice more people to give this series a try.

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A key cast addition this season is Eddie Izzard, the bold standup comic, and star of FX's The Riches, who plays a psychology professor at the college where Tara enrolls to complete her degree. When he sees a manifestation of one of Tara's "alters" himself, he doesn't believe it, or her.

Yet by seeking to disprove her claims, he digs deeper than anyone ever has -- which makes some part of Tara see him as a savior, and another part see him as a threat.

Another recurring guest star this season is Frances Conroy, the repressed mom in Six Feet Under, who plays an even more dysfunctional mother here.

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She's Max's mom, and when we meet her, we understand so much about who Max is, and why he's stayed with Tara all these years. She keeps Christmas year round because it makes her feel good -- and Max's dad walked out on them when Max was young, because he wearied of such insanity. Max doesn't want to do the same, but this season's events will test that resolve.

All the characters in United States of Tara are working on their own identity crises. Charmaine doesn't want to accept the advances of Max's friend Neil (Patton Oswalt), even though he got her pregnant. Marshall isn't sure about accepting a flamboyant classmate as his gay boyfriend. And Kate decides to escape Kansas, and all the drama of her household, by flying off to Osaka to teach English to students there.

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And in episode three, just as she's waiting at her gate to take off, the TV presents a breaking news story of a massive earthquake in Japan. This, of course, was written and filmed long before the events of this month's Japanese earthquake and tsunami -- but it's jarringly eerie nonetheless.

And from that point on, United States of Tara keeps shaking things up. While the comedy remains strong -- DeWitt and Oswalt, as the verbally feuding Charmaine and Neil, are especially funny -- it's on the dramatic side that this series, this year, goes all in. Before too long, it becomes clear that Tara has become not only a danger to herself, but to those around her.

And that, since we've become invested in all these characters, is no laughing matter.

Toni Collette won her Emmy in the category of Comedy Actress -- but this year, United States of Tara is easily as much a drama as it is a comedy. As with so many other series in the modern age, the neat little categories of comedy and drama no longer seem to fit.

United States of Tara, though, is a program that deserves to fit into everyone's weekly Must-See viewing list.

 
 
 
 
 
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