Toni Collette gets the role of her lifetime "? or five of them, in fact "? in "United States of Tara," a Showtime series whose first season is now out on DVD.
Initially, I was skeptical, as many cable series seem to be less than the sum of their parts, but this dramedy "? created by "Juno" scribe Diablo Cody, exec-produced by some guy named Steven Spielberg "? pays off on its concept. Actually, it transcends its concept, but more on that in a couple of paragraphs.
Collette's Tara is your average American housewife, save for one thing: She suffers from dissociative identity disorder, so at any time "? usually during crises or moments of stress "? she slips the extreme personality of one of her "alters." There's Alice, the prim, prude 1950s housewife. There's T, the lewd, crude teenager. And there's Buck, a redneck male. Their reasons for being are sketchy; it may have to do with Tara's possible rape in boarding school, but she doesn't remember "? and that's what drives the first season's arc.
This temporary identity swapping throws Tara's family in disarray, and also allows Collette to demonstrate impressive range, as each alter resides on an entirely different plane of emotions. This is the hook for the show, but to be honest, it's the least interesting portion of this 12-episode set.
No, for me, the joy of "Tara" resides in her dealings "? however dysfunctional "? with her family, and none of those actors shrink in her higher-profile role. John Corbett is terrific and utterly believable as Max, Tara's workingman husband. In a nice contrast to most TV shows, he loves her unconditionally, even when a new one threatens to sprout, and even going so far as to not take sexual advantage of her alters.
Tara's jealous sister, Charmaine, is played with the perfect amount of cynicism by Rosemarie DeWitt, but two of the strongest performances come from Tara's kids. Normally, teen/tween roles are the weakest of any show, but not here. As the rebellious Kate and the semi-closeted Marshall, Brie Larson and Keir Gilchrist give "United States" much of its heart. Collette may win all the awards "? and should "? but they're every bit as worthy. And shining in comic-driven guest slots are Nathan Corddry and Jessica St. Clair.
Cody doesn't write all the episodes; the ones she does have the best lines, but the ones she doesn't also are stellar in terms of storytelling. She's the focus of a brief, freewheeling Q-and-A on the extra features. You can get more goodies, such as two episodes of Showtime's "Californication" ... but only if you have a PC. The set's Mac-unfriendliness is the only fault I can find with it. "?Rod Lott