'United States of Tara': HBO's Clever Look at Lunacy

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 17, 2009

Difficult to categorize, maybe even to characterize, Showtime's "United States of Tara" is funny, poignant, crazy and sane -- a bird of a different feather if there ever was one. Or four. At heart, it's a mere sitcom, one in which the "sit" provides much of the muted "com," but like most potential labels, "sitcom" seems too small for the show.

Whatever it is, it's fascinating, the television equivalent of the book you can't put down and maybe the jigsaw puzzle you never quite complete. But you keep trying.

At its less interesting moments, it's only an actor's exercise, and yet even at that level, its challenges are formidable. The show's flabbergasting star, Toni Collette, plays four (and maybe more) roles, all of them housed in the same highly adaptable frame. Tara, a wife and mother who's nominally eponymous, suffers from dissociative identity disorder and might at any moment turn into a slatternly nymph named "T," a burly-gnarly male oaf named Buck or a fluttery bubbling happy homemaker named Alice.

Tara's husband, daughter or son might be talking with the homemaker identity who appears out of nowhere, like an unexpected relative -- only to see a certain mistiness come over the eyes, hear a mysterious change in the voice and then have to face the fact, for perhaps the 97th time, that Alice doesn't live there anymore. Tara might have returned, or perhaps some other member of the troupe, raiding Tara's closet for an appropriate change of wardrobe.

Dissociative identity disorder was previously personified on one screen or another under different names (including multiple personality disorder) -- for instance, by Joanne Woodward's unforgettable Eve (as in "The Three Faces of -- ") and Sally Field's tortured soul, "Sybil."

There are four faces to Tara; three appear Sunday night, with Alice held in the wings until the second episode. Showtime's program notes indicate there might be still other personalities sprouting in future installments. The marvel of it is, writer and co-executive producer Diablo Cody, of "Juno" fame, uses the gimmick in so many wild ways that it stops seeming like a gimmick in fairly short order.

The quadruple personalities can easily be seen as among myriad roles that Woman plays in a day or a lifetime -- the seducer and the seduced, the problem solver and the walking dilemma, the angel and the whore. Mercifully, though, the moral of the tale doesn't appear to be a slack-jawed "Woman, Thou Wondrous Creature"; the complexities take us deeper than that. Tara's curse of walking contradictions represents a curious component of the human condition; she just has a more pronounced case than almost anybody else.

One of the admirable things about the show is the fact that we join Tara's life already well in progress; we don't have to go through arduous scenes of Tara discovering her multiplicity and doctors analyzing it and her friends and family learning to adjust -- although living with Tara and her little occupants obviously qualifies as a continuing education. When we first enter her world on tonight's premiere, her condition is a fact of life to most of those living with and around her, and they have already developed their own adaptation strategies.

Whereas the surly lug she flattens with a punch in the school's parking lot has a lot of learning ahead of him.

Even the continuing characters that don't pop out of Tara are fresh and inventively drawn -- Tara's rueful and patient husband Max, played by easygoing John Corbett; her adolescent daughter Kate (Brie Larson), who struggles with all her might to understand and persevere; and her neo-nerdy teenage son, who has risen to the challenge with endearing maturity. He can do homework on his laptop with one hand and make muffins with the other.

Naturally, not everyone can live comfortably in the same sphere as a woman with multiple personalities that pop up without warning. Most troubled and troublesome of those is Rosemarie Dewitt as Charmaine, Tara's sister, a woman not at all amused by the dancing personalities and not above tossing a seductive pass at her sister's unflappable husband.

He's not just unflappable, really, but the very definition of unflappability, and you get the feeling that if he were any less so, Tara and her inner kin would be living out of a supermarket shopping cart underneath an overpass.

Sometimes dealing with Tara is almost as much of a chore for viewers as it is for characters in the show. Truth be told, as it always is around here, there isn't much of a story -- at least not in the first few chapters. But just getting to know Tara and her world is rewarding and sometimes much more deeply affecting that one would expect.

"United States of Tara" defies all kinds of expectations. Although it is not, happily, another in TV's growing army of freak shows, it's easy to picture people freaking out over it -- in the most pleasurably head-spinning ways.

United States of Tara (30 minutes) premieres tomorrow night at 10 on Showtime.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company