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TELEVISION REVIEW

Mother's little helpers

In 'Tara,' family life is twisted by a mom with 3 personalities

(JORDiN ALTHAUS/SHOWTIME)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / January 17, 2009
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Television has been not-so-quietly burying the concept of "normal life" for years now. If you ever thought America was a bastion of conventionality, here's a pot-dealing mom ("Weeds"), a serial-killing brother ("Dexter"), a meth-dealing dad ("Breaking Bad"), and a ladies club of loonies ("Desperate Housewives") for your consideration. No one knows what goes on behind closed doors, our TV writers remind us, and you really should assume it's human, flawed, illegal, or just plain twisted.

Showtime's "United States of Tara" is a logical extension of this decades-long subversion of - and liberation from - "The Brady Bunch." The comedy series, premiering tomorrow at 10 p.m., is about a suburban mother and wife, Tara Gregson (Toni Collette), who has dissociative identity disorder. When stress kicks in, Tara switches into one of her three alternates - a pot-smoking teen who goes by "T," a Mrs. Cleaver type named Alice, or Butch, a gruff Vietnam vet. Off meds due to troublesome side effects, Tara now sees her life as "a multiple-personality reunion tour."

So yes, the show is partly "Sybil: The Comedy," with Mom as a Tracey Ullman type who keeps her family amused with kooky voices and costume changes. Who will she be today? Will she try to seduce Dad (John Corbett) as the slutty T, or will she want to watch porn with him as Butch? But "Tara" also has dramatic components, lest any mental-health advocates are gearing up for a PR campaign. Tara is a cheerless woman who can't cope with life, and Collette spends her time as Tara not smiling. Her disorder isn't just an eccentric metaphor for a modern woman straining to be everything to everyone; it's also a source of grief and loneliness. "United States of Tara" wants to have it both ways - and, more than you might expect, it does.

Frankly, I'm of two minds about this show, which was executive produced by Steven Spielberg and created by Diablo Cody, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of "Juno." The best surprise is that, like "Juno," it's not really about a dysfunctional family, and there are none of the melodramatics of "Brothers & Sisters." The Gregsons have issues, for sure. Daughter Kate (Brie Larson) is a snark machine who snaps, "Why can't Mom be manic-depressive like all the other moms?" And Marshall (Keir Gilchrist, who deserves his own series) is a brave guy who shoulders far too much weight. "Because of you, we get to be interesting," he selflessly says to his mother.

But along with Corbett's Max, they are so accepting of Tara's illness you want to envelop them all in a group hug. Like the MacGuff family of "Juno," they are, at the core, a pragmatic bunch. Even Kate's bitter commentary is built on a baseline of love for her mother, as well as a friendship with the pot-smoking T. Max takes each of his wife's personalities on their own terms - he's like Bill Paxton's polygamist in "Big Love," juggling his wives and struggling to keep them all afloat and safe. His patience is saintly, except Corbett also has a playful, overgrown kid side that makes Max more interesting. When T, or the prissy Alice, makes sexual advances on him, he's flattered; but he remains loyal to Tara, who has asked for monogamy.

In what makes "The United States of Tara" into a paean to family unity and strength, the Gregsons welcome the alternate personalities into their bond. They love Tara just the ways she is.

The problem with the show is that, as a vehicle for Collette, it is poorly developed. Playing the alters should be a great opportunity for an actress - "Tara" should be, on some level, about acting itself, about the roles Tara is choosing to play in her life and what each one gives to her. But the three alters are so flat that even Collette, an actress capable of chameleonic turns, is stranded in cliché. If only the personalities were as elaborate as their wardrobes.

Alice is the prim 1950s housewife by way of Martha Stewart, and she's as individualized as a "Saturday Night Live" sketch character - maybe even less so. In one scene, she tries to wash out Kate's mouth with soap. Butch, too, is bound up in stereotype: he's homophobic, he loves guns, he likes to swear. Along with the thong-baring T, a rebellious everyteen, they form a surface-only trio that is unlikely to offer surprises as the series continues. They are too broad, with none of the particularities or poignancy of Lily Tomlin's or Chris Lilley's or Tracey Ullman's personae.

Collette has more room to move as Tara, who picks up after her alters, monitoring their activity through her credit-card bill. Tara is an artist who paints wall murals, and Collette beautifully shades her ordinariness and repression. You can feel her swallowing rage with her sister, Charmaine (Rosemarie DeWitt, from "Rachel Getting Married"), who doesn't believe Tara has an illness and resents losing attention to her dramatic sister.

I'm on board with "Tara," but so far mostly for the supporting characters, whose number expands in the coming weeks to include a self-empowered "Vita-self" saleswoman who is overly curious about Tara's disorder. Hey, maybe that supporting cast will grow even further - without bringing in any new actors, that is.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit boston.com/ae/tv/blog

UNITED STATES OF TARA Starring: Toni Collette, John Corbett, Brie Larson, Keir Gilchrist, Rosemarie DeWitt

On: Showtime

Time: Tomorrow night, 10-10:30

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