The United States of Tara, reviewed.

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Jan. 15 2009 5:50 PM

The United States of Tara

Toni Collette has multiple personalities, all of them written by Diablo Cody.

Toni Collette in The United States of Tara.
Toni Collette in The United States of Tara

On The United States of Tara (Showtime, Sundays at 10 p.m. ET), Toni Collette plays a middle-aged mother of two presenting a florid and overt case of dissociative identity disorder, previously known as multiple-personality disorder in the days when its poster girls were Eve White and Sybil Dorsett and its diagnosis was a cause for on-screen solemnity, as opposed to the light farce and dark humor of this sitcom.

Tara Gregson, fed up with feeling befogged by her medication, has quit her pills and now allows her "alters"—a lady named Alice, a man named Buck, and a teenage slattern known as T—to come and go as they please. In the press materials, the show's medical consultant writes that the over-the-top nature of the personalities indicates that Tara might also suffer from bipolar disorder. T, for instance, is so air-humpingly hypersexual that you suspect you're witnessing a manic episode every time she's out in the world. Further, T shows symptoms of a devastating cognitive disorder that causes her to talk like a parody of a Diablo Cody character. Can you help us find a cure?

With her Academy Award-winning screenplay for Juno, Cody—the creator of Taraand, along with Steven Spielberg, one of its executive producers—joined Aaron Sorkin, David Mamet, and Quentin Tarantino on the list of screenwriters who craft distinctively styled dialogue. More precocious than her elders, she swiftly discovered a knack for cheesing people off, largely because she is a creature of the times and because snark itself is her art, subject, and default mode. The ideal specimen of a Diablo Cody line will feature a tension between diction and form. Though assembled with a literary wit, it will drop either a pop-culture allusion (often chosen for its kitsch value) or slang that's just slightly anachronistic, and it will flaunt the casualness of the dropping. It is pleased with its own cleverness almost to the point of hostility, sneering as it snaps past.

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So, here, we get, "Sometimes you make me feel like I'm living in a Lifetime lady-tampon movie"; "That dude is such a waste of hair product"; "I've been diggin' around your closest for an hour, and I still can't fuckin' get to Narnia"; "cluck-cluck" (as a synonym for fried chicken); "Sudoku" (as a racial slur); "Jell-O Pudding is for the children" (said in Bill Cosby's voice); and—this is T explaining how Tara found out that her daughter took a morning-after pill—"She went all CSI in that pubic thatch you call a backpack." For whatever reason, Cody has front-loaded her scripts with this stuff—is she trying to alienate the audience? Sitting through the grating first reel of Juno felt at times like a test of character, but I left the movie with a lump in my throat. Tara doesn't yet show the same emotional depth as Juno—not in its first four episodes, at least—but if you have the fortitude to make it through the tonal assault of its first 10 minutes, then you'll get to see some recognizable human feeling seep up through the wisecracks.

For this, high praise is due to a cast that includes Rosemarie DeWitt (as Tara's woebegone, slightly wicked sister), John Corbett (doing his modern hunk thing as her oft-neglected husband), and the likes of Nate Corddry and Tony Hale in smaller parts. Collette's inventiveness lifts her performance(s) above the level of a stunt. As Alice, she is an old-school homemaker, dressing like Betty Draper, baking like Betty Crocker, behaving like she's never heard of Betty Friedan, which she apparently hasn't. These alters have their own sense of time. Buck, for instance, believes that he left his manhood on the battlefield in Vietnam. (This prompts the question of what this hick thinks he's doing to himself when enjoying his porn collection, but if we ask for more than a modicum of reality from this fiction, it will crumble.) T, a contemporary girl, just wants to wag her tongue around, preferably at the mall.

The most elusive of the personalities is Tara herself, and that's as it should be. How does it feel inside the head of the woman who walks into the kitchen table with her hair still wet after showering off the residue of her latest visitation? We don't exactly know and don't yet exactly want to. Her sister mentions that Tara developed her condition after a boarding-school sex crime, and it will be interesting to see if future episodes address that trauma while maintaining the half-frivolous tone of this smart aleck's answer to Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, and sundry other sitcoms about the voodoo of domestic happiness.

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

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