An infrequently updated dumping ground for one culture junkie's thoughts on film and whatever else

Thursday, January 29, 2009

United States of... Whatever?

It's difficult to approach Showtime's new series The United States of Tara with anything like an objective eye, given the massive clusterfuck of hype, backlash and anti-backlash that series creator Diablo Cody still carries with her from the Juno fallout. That said, I tried to set aside my distaste for Cody's public persona (which I find more objectionable than her actual writing; take this recent interview by Alan Sepinwall, in which she says at least a couple of eye-rollingly stupid things) and give the new show a chance, on its own terms.

Mostly, I like it. I've seen the first three episodes, and so far the show is breezy and highly watchable and maybe has potential to be something more. I do have some qualms, though. They're more nagging annoyances than major flaws, but I'll list them here just the same:

•I'm not sold on Toni Collette's performance. She's fine as Tara, but as the "alters" (multiple personalities) she seems way too actor-y and over-the-top, more like a precocious high school theatre kid's conception of Dissociative Identity Disorder than a stab at the real thing. Of course, it's defensible that the alters wouldn't be realistic depictions of their respective identities ('50s housewife, gruff male trucker, slutty teenager) because Tara has never been any of those things. But Tara also isn't an actress, and I have trouble buying the idea that an average sufferer of DID would have such theatrical identities.

•This is related to the first qualm, but I'm slightly uncomfortable with the show's treatment of DID in general (thus far). It feels a bit too glib and played for comedy. I admit that this reaction stems partly from my issues with Juno's flippant treatment of teen pregnancy (the worst part of that movie is the scene where Juno decides against having an abortion because of 15 seconds of clicking pens). I can see that the show is trying to examine the disorder's impact on the family, at least, so there's reason to believe this qualm will go away.

•Why the hell is the show set in Kansas? None of the actors talk like they're in Kansas. There are no signifiers at all; we could've easily assumed the family lived in California until the setting was explicitly stated in episode 3. I think it's safe to assume that Cody and the other writers know fuck-all about Kansas. So what's the point, other than to take potshots at closed-minded middle America?

•Not really a qualm, but an observation: Juno haters will be glad to see that Cody's stylized dialogue has been toned down a lot, probably due to her being part of a writing staff rather than sole wordsmith. So far only one line has really irked me, and it was a pop culture reference. Now, there's nothing inherently wrong with pop culture references in comedy, but they bring two dangers: (1) overusing them and (2) not doing them convincingly. Cody's been guilty of both, but in this case it was (2). I don't buy for a minute that anybody's mom, even a relatively cool mom like Tara, would make a fucking Small Wonder reference in conversation with her husband. And it wasn't even funny in context. Diablo, I like your show, but you are NOT good at pop culture references.

Anyway, that's it. I feel bad for focusing on the negative, but there's actually not that much to say about the positive attributes of the series so far. I will say that I really like the character of Tara's effete, awkward, probably-gay son. The young actor playing him will remind people of Michael Cera, without the reliance on stylized mumbling and before Cera became a tired brand-name and a party-pooping little jerk. Oh, and the show's supporting cast is well-stocked, with such awesome folks as Patton Oswalt (playing the dad's landscaping partner/buddy), Tony Hale (as an uptight teacher), and Rosemarie Dewitt (as the unsupportive sister). It's worth checking out—even if you hated Juno.

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