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"United States of Tara" Is Successful Showtime Synergy

Showtime’s newest series, The United States of Tara, is a perfect example of TV synergy: role by role, and episode by episode, Toni Collette’s show about a wife and mother with several alternate personalities turns out to be greater than the sum of its parts. And of hers.

That’s because Tara, premiering Sunday night at 10 ET, takes a high-concept idea and takes it seriously.

Created by Steven Spielberg and written by Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody, this series presents Collette’s Tara as a woman with a decades-long disorder, dampened by medication, that resurfaces when she stops taking her meds and is confronted by stress. At such times, Tara recedes, and an “alter” surfaces. In the first four episodes, we meet three: a frisky teen flirt named “T,” a macho male redneck named “Buck,” and a Donna Reed-type housewife named “Alice.”

It’s a showy, show-off role for Collette, of course, but what’s most endearing about these early episodes is how family members react to Tara and her other personality factions. John Corbett, as the husband, is tempted but not seduced by T, and indulgent of but not intimidated by Buck. Keir Gilchrist, as son Marshall, has learned how to relate to all the alters, and Brie Larson, as daughter Kate, finds them all embarrassing – but also, on occasion, good to have around.

In the first episode, you get a sense of all this – but the synergy really kicks in as the episodes pile up, and the novelty of each different persona gives way to learning more about them. Tara and her families – her family of “alters,” as well as her spouse and children – all carry the weariness of these resurfaced and disorienting personalities. But like the dysfunctional family of Showtime’s Weeds, it’s a tight-knit group that has accepted its very peculiar family dynamic, and, like any other family, is working hard to cope.