Critic's Review'The United States of Tara'It's showtime for Showtime
From Aaron Barnhart's Kansas City Star
'TV Barn' Blog - January 16, 2009
HBO or Showtime? For years, the question was not even worth asking. HBO was television's crown jewel, the overachiever of cable, a giant, pulsing entertainment electromagnet that sucked in distinguished actors, classy directors, effusive critics and trophies from every industry awards gala imaginable. HBO was fantastic -- it said so, right there in its own press materials.
And Showtime? It was the lint filter, a moist collection of low-budget smut, boxing matches and UPN-quality "original" productions that from 2000 to 2006 won exactly 10 Emmy Awards, none for a leading actor or best series. (During that same time, HBO took home 161 Emmys, as "The Sopranos" and "Sex and the City" each claimed the highest honor in its category.)
HBO or Showtime? At a time when household budgets are being squeezed, to subscribe to one of these pay-cable channels is an act not taken lightly.
Like every television critic in the land, I have from time to time written the obligatory "hey, look, Showtime actually has something interesting on" article. However, I've never felt that the sum total of all of Showtime's parts were ever enough to give an HBO subscriber even a mild case of buyer's remorse.
With the arrival of "United States of Tara," an addictive comedy about a suburban mom with multiple personalities that debuts Sunday, Showtime may have finally leveled the playing field with HBO.
Set in Overland Park (like you, I've lost track of how many TV series are set in Kansas), "United States of Tara" struts in with a premise so ludicrous that it makes HBO's "Big Love" seem like "Life with Father."
After all, Toni Collette plays not only Tara -- with her two kids, one-woman business and stable marriage to Max (John Corbett) -- but three wildly, irreconcilably different characters all competing to break to the surface.
They are "T," a perpetual teenager and bad influence, crazy about boys and reefer; "Buck," a dude who shoots pool, goes to strip clubs and isn't afraid to use his fists; and "Alice," a perfect housewife who looks like she peeled herself off a 1957 Betty Crocker cookbook.
Now at this point you're thinking: Isn't that what Tracey Ullman does, only with famous people?
There's some of that. Collette has been given a part with Emmy written all over it and she sells, sells, sells it. Alice shows up in her perfect skirt and bakes a perfect cake, putting "Mad Men's" Betty Draper to shame. When her daughter Kate (Brie Larson) drops an F-bomb, Alice literally washes her mouth out with soap.
Now here comes Buck, strolling in, sleeves rolled up, with a menacing look -- or as menacing as Mom in drag is capable of being -- puts out his cigarette in the muffins that Marshall (Keir Gilchrist), Tara's son, made for school and calls him a sissy.
And then there's T, clearly unhappy that as she is stuck with a 40-year-old's body when she's not even half that old.
Over the course of several episodes, it's explained that Tara experienced repeated traumas as a child (what they were is not immediately disclosed). She learned to create compartments where the various slices of her id could roam freely, never bumping into the others.
For years Tara controlled her other personalities through medication, but now she's easing off of them, with unpredictable results. Something happens in Tara's humdrum existence -- she and Kate have an argument, say -- and that triggers a stress reaction ... and a costume change.
These explanations are plausible enough, inside the hermetic bubble that this show has created for itself. It's no different than the rule on "Lost" that you must keep hitting that button or else the world ends -- it's true because the show says it's true. This is not to denigrate the work of researchers into dissociative identity disorder, as multiple-personality syndrome is apparently called these days. It is merely to point out that "United States of Tara" is not a documentary.
But as a comedy, it's surprisingly entertaining. Like when Max's partner at work, played by Patton Oswalt, says, "I envy your sex life. It's like you've got one of those 3-paks of cereal. You get, like, a Froot Loop and a Honey Smack. You just dump the milk in the box and chuck the ones you don't like."
"I'm not chucking any boxes," Max replies. "But I ain't eatin' that much cereal."
To which his incredulous partner says, "How is that even possible?"
But what ultimately kept me watching, through every screener Showtime provided, was this audacious bit of acting from Collette -- letting it all hang out as T or Buck or Alice, and then reeling it all back in to Tara, a woman with a problem and quite possibly, the means to fix it, if she chooses. If you're willing to suspend disbelief about a medical condition you know nothing about, you may find "Tara" irresistible.
So, Showtime or HBO? Well, one critically well-received series (and I'm only one critic) does not a network make. But if I were to devise a sort of index fund of positive reviews -- including not just the shows I like but those that have found broad support among critics -- I believe Showtime would be hitting record highs right now.
Watching "Dexter," a splatter caper starring Michael C. Hall as a serial killer who avenges serial killings, isn't my idea of a way to forget my troubles. But season three, just ended, racked up raves from many of my colleagues. And most of us would agree that "Weeds" remains a strong series for Showtime, having reinvented itself as a sexy outlaw-mom serial that perhaps only Mary-Louise Parker could have carried this far.
True, no one cared when Tracey Ullman took her show from HBO to Showtime. On the other hand, quite a few people have expressed their amazement that HBO would let go "Inside the NFL" -- a commercial-free, fairly low-intensity highlights show using the cinema-quality clips from NFL Films -- and allow Showtime to scoop it up.
Showtime, not HBO, carefully courted Ira Glass and his radio laboratory at Chicago Public Radio and allowed them to reimagine their documentaries in convenient video form. The result, "This American Life," won the Emmy for best nonfiction program and found a way to build a road even higher than HBO's documentary department.
HBO hasn't given us a leap-off-the-screen moment since Tony Soprano and family cut to black. There really hasn't been a series on HBO remotely like "The Sopranos" since "Deadwood." Bill Maher was fantastic, but the election's over. HBO's films division, led by "John Adams," had another stellar season -- but its longtime head just left HBO, right behind Chris Albrecht, who resigned as chairman of HBO following an altercation with his girlfriend.
Showtime? Not HBO? I never thought I would say it. I still haven't said it. Yet.http://blogs.kansascity.com/tvbarn/2...e-fo.html#more