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January 29, 2009 |

By Dustin Rowles | TV | January 29, 2009 |

We’ve been heralding the deterioration of the pay-cable drama for a while now. The best ones (“Six Feet Under,” “The Sopranos,” “Deadwood” “The Wire”) are gone; the next generation of them are decidedly on a downswing (“Weeds,” “Dexter,” “Entourage,” “The Larry David Show”); nobody watches “In Treatment”; “True Blood” is hard to resist, but still painfully awful; while a few others are starting to outstay their premises (“Big Love”) or did so about four or five seasons ago (“The L Word”).

I was hoping that “The United States of Tara” would reverse the decline, particularly during a time when there are only two dramas currently airing (“Lost,” “FNL”) that are compelling enough to stick with you the morning after. They certainly amassed enough talent here. Created by Steven Spielberg, written by Diablo Cody, and exec produced by Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl), who also directed the first three episodes, “United States of Tara” also features in its cast the stellar Toni Collette and John Corbett, and even a couple appearances from Patton Oswalt.

Granted, it’s not a bad show — in fact, it’s one of the more entertaining half-hours on television right now. Unfortunately, “United States of Tara” just isn’t that engrossing. It’s a show with a good gimmick; it just doesn’t seem to have an overarching premise, much less a compelling one. The show follows a family of four: Max (Corbett) is a landscaper and mild-mannered father; Kate (Brie Larson) is the spoiled, promiscuous teenage daughter; and Marshall (Keir Gilchrist) is the younger, geekier, smarter, bed-wetting son. Meanwhile, Toni Collete plays Tara, their mother, who has dissociative personality disorder, which also means that Collette plays T, a bubblegum chewing sex starved teenager; Buck, a gun-toting redneck man; and Alice, a catty, overaggressive, overbearing 1950’s housewife. And those are her alternative personalities in just the first two episodes. Though it hasn’t been fully explained, apparently Tara — who is the family doormat — decided to go off her medication and unleash her alternas so that she could work through whatever demons she has residing in her subconscious.

After only two episodes, it’s fairly evident how each episode will play out: Tara will be faced with a family or social problem, and rather than deal with it herself, the stress will drive out a different alternative personality better equipped to deal with the problem. In the first episode, for instance, the spoiled daughter got into some trouble with the deviant boyfriend and Buck, the redneck personality, came out and beat the living hell out of the boyfriend in front everyone. In the second episode, Tara — incapable of dealing with her son’s dick of a teacher or getting a cake ready for the Nazi Soccer Mom’s Bake Sale convention — turns into an abrasive Stepford Mom. Problems solved.

And that’s perhaps the biggest problem with the show so far: There’s no ongoing conflict. It’s too easy. Aside from the dissociative disorder gimmick, there’s nothing going on here that we haven’t seen in a million different sitcoms. The only difference is, Toni Collette is playing all the stock characters.

That said, the writing is sharp, and the Diablo-isms are nil. Corbett rules, and Colette is amusing as hell in each character she plays, though it’s a little too convenient that she has an entire wardrobe immediately available for each of her alternas. It’s a disposable half-hour — fun and frothy, only weighted down by more profanity than allowed on the networks. But that’s also its biggest fault: With the talent behind it, I’d hoped for something darker, more riveting. What we got, instead, is a well-acted, well-written family sitcom, only the Mom is played by a rolling cast of characters.

"United States of Tara" / Dustin Rowles

TV | January 29, 2009 |

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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