“United States of Tara”
Sundays at 10 p.m.
3 out of 5 stars
Showtime can now add a manic mom with crazy alter egos to its list of colorful characters, which already includes sex addicts, sociopaths and call girls. “United States of Tara” follows Tara Gregson (Toni Collette, “Little Miss Sunshine”) who appears to be like any other suburban mom balancing her familial duties and professional life. But she has a secret — three, actually.
Rather than threatening to take away her kids’ PlayStation or chasing them around the house with a wooden spoon, when Tara’s kids act out of line, one of her three alter egos comes out to cope with the situation. Tara has multiple personality disorder — the politically correct term is Dissociative Identity Disorder — and at any stressful moment a promiscuous teenager called T, a Marlboro Red-smoking truck driver known as Buck or a stereotypical Susie-homemaker named Alice emerges to wreak havoc on the family.
What sets “United States of Tara” apart from other family-centered shows is the Gregsons’ unconventional lifestyle. In the first episode, Tara is revealed to have lived with the disorder her entire life, and her family talks openly about it. When Tara unexpectedly transforms into her Buck persona before her daughter’s — or his daughter’s — dance recital, there’s no question that Tara in Buck form must attend the performance, regardless of his unrefined manner and roving eye for jailbait.
Obviously, living with a person whose personality can turn 180 degrees at any moment is frustrating, and predictably, Tara’s family struggles with her illness. Despite Tara’s shortcomings, the Gregsons realize each one of her alter egos brings out a special quality in her. Buck teaches her son, Marshall (Keir Gilchrist, “The Winner”), to bowl a strike and T helps her daughter, Kate (Brie Larson, “Sleepover”), cope with the pressure of school and boyfriend troubles.
“United States of Tara” offers a positive message about family life and demonstrates that families should stick together through thick and thin. It just has a very unique way of conveying that standard message.
“United States of Tara” has yet to distinguish itself from other Showtime shows and prove that it has staying power. The cable channel is known to explore the lives of unconventional family units — the Fisher family who owned a funeral home in “Six Feet Under” and the pot-dealing Botwin clan of “Weeds” are far cries from normal. But “United States of Tara” now has to face the challenge of maintaining its offbeat concept while not going off the deep end and alienating its audience — a challenge that both “Weeds” and “Six Feet Under” struggled with as they progressed into later seasons.
Though it’s too early to determine if “United States of Tara” is a work of television genius, the initial showing’s approach is different from virtually any other family-centered show on television. With the help of a winning trifecta — executive producer Steven Spielberg, writer Diablo Cody (“Juno”) and lead actress Toni Collette — the show looks likes it could be a success. “United States of Tara” can’t rely too much on its prestigious creative team and lead actors, however, because its success hinges upon its actual execution — something that, for this show, will be three times as difficult.