It has become trendy to say that Showtime is the new HBO, which usually makes me roll my eyes. HBO has come up with (arguably) not only the best 4 shows of the last ten years, but possibly 4 of the top 7 shows of ALL TIME! The people who run HBO encourage creativity and taking chances. We are (or at least have been) in the Golden Age of Television, and much of the improved quality HAS to be laid at the feet of Home Box Office, whose influence was always far greater than it's size.
That said, HBO has taken a slight downturn, mostly a cyclical thing involving many of those great shows ending. I fully expect them back at full power. (Last fall's True Blood is a good sign.)
It's not so much that HBO has slipped, as it is that Showtime has put the petal to the metal. It's like they went away for the summer as an eighth grader with a stick figure, and came back to school in the fall with the best set of tits you ever saw.
(If that last sentence offended you, you really have no business reading any comparison between Showtime and HBO.)
I don't have Showtime but I have seen much of their "signature" work. I am planning upcoming columns on The Tudors, Californication and Dexter, all of which are Top Ten shows from last year.
[SIDE NOTE: I just remembered why I'm writing this: not as a HBO vs. Showtime retrospective, but to talk about United States of Tara! I really suck at keeping to the point sometimes. Let's do this thing.]
United States of Tara premieres Sunday on Showtime. If you have access to the channel (your cable system, a friend's house, iTunes..), you might seriously want to consider giving this a shot.
I've just seen the pilot episode (available for free RIGHT NOW on Showtime's website or IMDB.com), and it's either one of the best ideas for a out-there comedy, or the worst.
Toni Collette has been nominated for an Oscar (THE SIXTH SENSE). She's widely praised for almost every role she ever does, which I have never fully understood. Now I do. In the role of a lifetime, Collette plays "Tara," a woman who's not only bi-polar, but has Disociative Identity Disorder, which most people know as Multiple Personalites.
We find out that Tara--for reasons not yet fully explained--has given up taking medicine for her condition, and instead lives with her three "alters;" distinct personalities that are for all intents and purposes completely different people.
[SECOND SIDE NOTE: There used to be tons of controversy about M.P.D./D.I.D., but this is mostly due to lack of understanding. At one time it was thought these "personalities" were inborn, which led to many people assuming the disorder was faked. It is now generally understood that a person with D.I.D. suffers trauma so severe (and might already have tremendous issues) that their mind cannot deal with it. The mind then creates different "personas" to deal with the various parts of the person's life. All the personalities are very much a part of the patient, but the personalities are also very real. They have totally different memories and behaviors, down to sometimes even being different-handed!]
Back to Tara: The idea of a dark comedy about a D.I.D sufferer is bold, and definitely unique. It is also extremely prone to be a total disaster, as the tendency would be to "overplay" the whole thing devolve it into camp. This was my fear as I watched the first episode, and I have to say: they definitely aren't going to subtle.
To up the ante even more, Tara is not just some wacko trying to hold on to herself, but she's a sister, wife and mother. Close your eyes for a moment and imagine how Showtime might depict a woman with multiple personalities who is also trying to live a normal life.
Tara's husband Max is played by John Corbett, who (at least so far) is a blend of his Aiden character from SATC and the groom in MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING. The idea of a husband being cool and supportive with some of Tara and Co.'s escapades seems farfetched, but if anyone was going to be, it'd be Corbett.
Tara also has two kids. Kate, 15, is a typical 15 year old. (Imagine how a girl that age would feel about the potential of her mother embarrassing her.) Kate makes HORRIBLE decisions about boys, and when you meet Kate's BF, you will want to pull a reverse RING and crawl through the TV to strangle him.
Marshall, about 13, is much more studious and concerned for his mom's well-being. He wants to protect her and understand her. He also bakes muffins, which I can only assume is TV-shorthand that Marshall will also soon have trouble with boys.
Also there is Charmaine (the luscious Rosemarie DeWitt, who has exploded since I predicted she would, so I like to think I am responsible), Tara's sister. She's only in small part of the pilot, but enough to let us know that Charmaine is tired of Tara, doesn't quite buy the whole thing, and kinda wishes she were "special" too.
So, the side characters are interesting, but you wanna hear about Tara's Brainmates! So far I know there is Alice, but we haven't met her yet. (I infer that she's all Betty Crocker.)
Then there's "T," who is 15, and sluttier than a Mickey Mouse Club alum. Tara's first transformation is into T, and it's pretty spectacular. Where as Tara was in crisis (over finding out her 15 year old daughter is having sex), it turns out T is the one who got the birth-control! T also dresses in full slut finery (Porno lip gloss, whale tale panties, and Kate's waaaaay too small jeans, to make her ass look better). It's a trip. What's even more remarkable is how everyone in the family seems to accept T as just part of life. They treat T as a wholly different person, but are not too put out.
(T comes on to Max and tries to seduce him, but Max knows that Tara would not approve of him nailing a horny fifteen hear old, even if they do look the same. That doesn't mean he's not tempted....)
The show-stopper is "Buck," who looks like he/she walked right off the set of DELIVERANCE. Again the family seems to handle this fairly well, but I gotta wonder how Max will hold up occasionally married to a "man," and a redneck at that.
The idea for United States of Tara came from Steven Spielberg, and Diablo Cody--she of the Oscar-winning JUNO script fame--is the writer. This is fairly obvious, as every character drips with Cody-isms. That's cool because I like Diablo Cody's defiant charm, but if the dialogue in JUNO made you gag, you might want to avoid this.
I don't know if United States of Tara is going to work. There is so much temptation to overplay the idea that it could all devolve into total farce fairly quickly. And, to be honest, there were several times I had to hit "pause" and hide in my shirt; I was so embarrassed for the characters. However, that may be more to do with my over-developed empathy-gene. (I also hide when Ross and Rachel fight, and when someone on a talk show is about to look foolish on national TV.) You may not have that problem.
I know that I will make every effort to watch this again, and I probably won't wait for DVD. I am excited to see how they handle the D.I.D. situation, and though nervous, excited to see if they manage to balance that fine line between pushing the envelope and utter crap.
And Collette really is something. There is a bravery to her performance--really to all her work--that belies the obvious. If you ever see her all done up right, the woman is actually stunning. However, she usually plays characters who are plain at best. For this show Collette has gained just a few pounds in her waist, and since she's a small woman it is more noticeable. Considering that one of her characters is a would-be slut, that means we will likely see a lot of that less-than-perfect body. In Hollywood, that's brave. Playing an unsexy man is brave.
Actually, it's all brave, and I'm sure every actress in Hollywood would have killed to get this part. It looks like they got the right girl. Now let's see what they can do with her.
[One final SIDE NOTE: United States of Tara is being paired with the second season of "Secret Diary of a Call Girl." I had planned on writing about this show when I reviewed Californication, but in case you have Showtime and you decide to try TARA, take my advce and Skip CALL GIRL. It's a show about a hooker and Hyperion hates it. That should tell you everything you need to know.]