Just as Showtime's successful series formula threatens to grow stale, along comes ï¿ 1/2"United States of Tara" (10 tonight) to shake up the paradigm.
Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker) on "Weeds" and "Henry VIII" (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) on "The Tudors" may be selfish manipulators and Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) of "Dexter" is undoubtedly a sociopath, but Tara Gregson (Toni Collette) is both more exotic and more likable.
'United States of Tara
When: 10 p.m. Showtime
Starring: Toni Collette
Tara has dissociative identity disorder, formerly known as multiple personality disorder, and in times of stress she closes her eyes, nods and out comes one of her "alters," a different personality that behaves and dresses differently. There's the slutty teenager T, homophobic gun nut Buck and '50s-era homemaker Alice.
Why Tara suffers from DID is not established early in the series and whether Tara portrays the condition with any sort of accuracy will be up to medical experts to decide, but as entertainment, "United States of Tara" succeeds through humor, vivid characters and a stunning performance by Collette, who disappears into the roles of Tara's alters.
Above all else, "Tara" seems exceedingly well cast. It's hard to imagine a more believable actor playing Tara's patient husband. John Corbett ("Northern Exposure") has an ease about him that makes him ideally cast to fend off the sexual advances of some of Tara's alters, something Tara insists he do.
The supporting players also make an impression, including Nate Corddry ("Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip") as the immature boss of teen daughter Kate (Brie Larson) and Valerie Mahaffey ("The Powers That Be") as Tara's therapist.
Created, executive-produced and written by Diablo Cody, who won an original screenplay Oscar for "Juno," "Tara" features less self-consciously hip dialogue than "Juno," but it is still a Cody-esque repository of obscure references, including the '80s sitcom "Small Wonder" and this dialogue from Kate: "Sometimes I feel like I'm living in some kind of Lifetime lady tampon movie."
But "Tara" also has something lacking in other Showtime series: heart. It takes several episodes for this to bloom fully, but at its core, "Tara" is a family comedy. Sure, the family is a little offbeat with mom's mental problems, but it's a functioning Overland Park, Kan., family nonetheless. Refreshingly, teen son Marshall's (Keir Gilchrist) homosexuality isn't even an issue for hand-wringing melodrama, just an accepted facet of his personality.
Even as "Tara" traffics in dark humor surrounding Tara's condition, the series also explores its impact on her loved ones in what feels like a believable way among an extremely accepting and understanding family.
Contact TV editor Rob Owen at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1112. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv.