First, the good news: In Showtime’s new drama, created by Juno scribe Diablo Cody, no one talks on a hamburger phone or utters the word homeskillet. Starring Toni Collette, United States of Tara follows a suburban housewife, who has dissociative identity disorder with three alternate personalities: a slutty teen (known simply as T), so-prim-it’s-silly housewife Alice and beer-chugging Buck—yep, that one’s a man. But Tara’s quick-changing personalities, called alters, aren’t the shocking part of the series; that her husband, Max, and two teenage children accept her disease with a shrug and a smile is what has landed Tara on Showtime instead of Lifetime.
Collette morphs between alters with burnished perfectionism, but her smooth transitions give it the feel of a character-acting master class, not a rare mental disorder. As her husband, John Corbett retreads the same understanding-beta-male character he’s played in Sex and the City and umpteen Ford truck commercials, while Keir Gilchrist and Brie Larson fare better as their understandably anxious children.
There’s backstory galore for the show to explore in the 12-episode season—what trauma caused Tara’s condition, why her nagging sister refuses to recognize the disease, why Tara forgoes medication. But as the show kicks off, we’re meant to simply be impressed that wow, Tara’s problems are basically ours, even if they’re manifested by multiple personalities. The model is familiar; Weeds’ leading lady was such a gosh-darn normal soccer mom apart from the fact that she’s a pot dealer, and HBO’s Big Love introduced suburbanites who were blandly unremarkable except for sharing a husband. Sooner or later those shows had to drop the “There’s just like us!” pretense, spinning out into more bizarre orbits and trusting the audience to follow. With stellar talent leading the way, Tara has a shot at lasting that long, provided Cody and company can supply a little affectionate warmth—and sure, even some of Juno’s quirk—to permeate Collette’s professional one-woman show.