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UNITED STATES OF TARA (Showtime)
(Sundays at 10:00/9:00c beginning January 18)
The network's description (January 18, "Pilot"): "Suburban wife and mother Tara Gregson (TONI COLLETTE) juggles her family and career while suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder. It�s never a dull moment in the Gregson household as the various identities may appear on any given day - and range from "T" - a flirtatious and spunky teenager to "Buck," a gun-loving male alter - all while her supportive husband Max (JOHN CORBETT) and their two teenaged children, Kate (BRIE LARSON) and Marshall (KEIR GILCHRIST), try to lead as much of a "normal" life as possible."
The network's description (January 25, "Aftermath"): "Once "T" and "Buck" have been in the house, the subsequent cleanup is never easy. Kate gets frustrated when Tara tries to sit her down for "the talk," and Marshall is too embarrassed to have Tara help when he has problems at school. Feeling like she's failed as a mother, Tara turns into her third alternate personality, "Alice," the ultimate 1950s housewife, who has a knack for using her Betty Crocker-like demeanor to solve any issue."
The network's description (February 1, "Work"): "When Tara and Max can't connect in the bedroom, Tara worries Max may be more interested in her alters than her. After gaining reassurance from her therapist Dr. Ocean (VALERIE MAHAFFEY), Tara plans a "sex date" with Max to get them back on track. Tara's sister Charmaine (ROSEMARIE DeWITT) recommends she meet her boss Tiffany for a potential mural project. As Tara prepares for her "sex date" with Max, the pressure becomes too much and she becomes "Buck." That night, "Buck" doles out advice on women and Max ends up male-bonding with his own wife."
The network's description (February 8, "Inspiration"): "Tara feels the best she's felt in a long time. She loves the mural she is working on and feels she's found a new friend in Tiffany. That night, while Charmaine, Tara and Tiffany are out for drinks, Tiffany decides she wants to see one of Tara's alternate personalities and begins probing Tara in a way that turns ugly. Tiffany wakes up the next morning horrified when she finds the mural is destroyed and she suspects Tara."
What did they leave out? Look for fun guest spots by Tony Hale as Marshall's sad sack teacher, Patton Oswald as Max's lazy landscaping partner and Nate Corddry as Kate's overly intense boss at her restaurant job.
The plot in a nutshell: Tara Gregson (Toni Collette) knew when she went off her meds the "alters" - her nickname for her alternate personalities - would be back. And sure enough, when the stress of discovering her rebellious daughter Kate (Brie Larson) has purchased morning after pills hits, we meet "T" - her teenage alter. Dressed in a thong, skinny jeans and too much lip gloss, T swipes Tara's credit cards and offers to take Kate on a shopping spree. Left to handle the situation then are Tara's superhumanly understanding husband Max (John Corbett, exuding awesomeness) and son Marshall (Keir Gilchrist, also exuding awesomeness). T however is not alone - when Tara's overcome by what to do after watching Kate in a shoving match with her boyfriend, we meet "Buck" her male alter complete with trucker cap; and (in the second episode) when Tara's mortified by a filthy house, we meet "Alice" the real-life Bree Van De Kamp. The alters however are more than just moods or coping mechanisms - each has its own distinct identity (Buck's even left handed) and agenda (Alice wants Max to impregnate her), not to mention is conscious of Tara's actions while Tara herself isn't aware when they take over (she can only keep a journal and make videotapes in order to keep up with what's going on). As you can guess, the ensuing chaos plays havoc with Tara's marriage and family while her sister Charmaine (Rosemarie DeWitt) can only raise her nose and disapprove, thinking it's all just an act. Ultimately the Gregsons, despite their unique situation, prove to be just like every other dysfunctional family. Okay, maybe with a few more trucker caps and thongs.
What works: For a show with such a big gimmick and so many chances to go over the top, "Tara" is surprisingly layered and real. And for writer known for her crackerjack dialogue and pop culture sensibility, Diablo Cody proves to be equally adept in building a show's mythology and deepening its storytelling possibilities. By the end of the four episodes provided for review, "Tara" rolls out a universe in a natural progression that's downright staggering. Whether it be Tara's backstory or the reveal that Kate and Marshall could use some alters of their own as they cope with growing up, everything is piecemealed out in a way that's neither showy nor shoehorned in. The Gregsons look and feel like any genuine yeah-we're-not-perfect-but-we're-trying family. Or as Max so aptly puts in the pilot when told by Charmaine he deserves better - "No, I really don't." Not surprisingly, little of this would be possible without Toni Collette fearlessly diving headfirst into such a complex role. In less capable hands, "Tara" could be a sketch comedy show with wackiness ensuing at every turn (which isn't to say "Tara" doesn't have its laugh out loud moments). The same goes for Corbett and the rest of the Gregson clan - from Marshall's crush on a fellow classmate to Max's I-know-I-can't-but-boy-wouldn't-it-be-nice temptations with Tara's female alters, everything is expertly nuanced and textured.
What doesn't: What can I say - after going in with no expectations...
The bottom line: ...I'm floored by the end result.