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United States of Tara -- TV Review

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Showtime's big-ticket seriocomic half-hour from the DreamWorks TV stable is no doubt the first series to include an insert on Dissociative Identity Disorder in its media kit, and the first episode leaves viewers feeling a bit disconnected.

But anyone who makes it past the pilot is in for a pleasant surprise: Things greatly improve as the show settles into a comfortable rhythm through Episodes 2, 3 and 4. "United States of Tara" breaks new ground when it comes to warped dramatic family comedy

Blessed with dazzling acting and the dynamic pen of creator-exec producer Diablo Cody (Oscar winner for "Juno," no one-trick pony), the show about a woman struggling to keep her life on track while beset by multiple "alters," in the "Tara" lingo, turns out to have nearly as much heart as it does envelope-pushing sass. But it's also clearly an acquired taste that won't be for everybody.

Beyond Cody, the trump cards in this deck are the presence of Steven Spielberg as an executive producer and the marvelously versatile Toni Collette as the lead. In a turn that has to make her an early favorite for a 2009 Emmy, she demonstrates uncanny range as a Kansas housewife and mother with a not-so-secret secret life. She has DID, and various triggers can bring out three very different personas. There's "T," a sexed-up teenager with an attitude; Buck, a beer-swilling trucker and Vietnam vet with a love of brawling; and Alice, a '50s-style Betty Crocker housewife who seems to have stepped out of "Pleasantville."

Tara has little control over the alters or memory of their antics. When they show up, they typically cause trouble and complicate her family's lives.

The drama, and indeed the comedy, that drive "Tara" is her relationship with her long-suffering, alternately empathetic, bemused and resentful family: her obliging husband Max (John Corbett), her rebellious teenage daughter Kate (Brie Larson) and her brainy, somewhat effeminate teen son Marshall (Keir Gilchrist). Only Tara's sister Charmaine (Rosemarie DeWitt of "Rachel Getting Married") has absolutely no patience for the alters' antics.

The supporting cast blends superbly with Collette, establishing memorable characters in their own right (particularly Gilchrist). But there's no question that the entire premise defies credulity, which could prove a significant hurdle over the long haul. I mean, Tara's husband has hung around, and been heroically understanding, for 17 years despite living in a situation akin to "Big Love" with one woman. While the kids have apparently found their own coping mechanisms, it's difficult to imagine their the embarrassment that Mom tosses at them with regularity. And based on what Tara's alter egos do in Episode 1 alone, her staying out of either prison or a mental hospital likely would require feats of magic.

Still, if one can simply check disbelief at the door, Tara's wacky world starts to make some sense and to draw the viewer in. Beyond the sexy, spirited dialogue and effortless irreverence, the real question is where the story takes us from here. Future story lines suggest it will continue to play on the family dynamics and the lead character's increasing feeling of isolation and her attempt to get a handle on her short-circuiting brain. And that makes sense, so long as the show retains its sense of fun and mischief: Think Marshall hiding a copy of "Sybil" from his mom, or Kate's quip, "Why can't she just be manic depressive like all the other moms?" (Answer: because she's on Showtime, silly!)

After the success of "Juno," Cody had her pick of projects. This is the idea she chose, which demonstrates that she has no interest in playing it safe.

Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images

Airdate: 10 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 18 (Showtime)
Production: DreamWorks Television and Showtime Networks
Cast: Toni Collette, John Corbett, Rosemarie DeWitt, Keir Gilchrist, Brie Larson, Patton Oswalt
Executive producers: Steven Spielberg, Justin Falvey, Darryl Frank, Diablo
Cody, Alexa Junge
Creator: Diablo Cody
Supervising producers: Dave Finkel, Brett Baer
Consulting producers: Craig Gillespie, Jill Soloway
Producer: Dan Kaplow
Associate producers: Steven Mesner
Writers: Diablo Cody, Alexa Junge
Directors: Craig Gillespie, Mark Mylod
Directors of photography: Uta Briesewitz, M. David Mullen
Production designer: Alison Sadler
Costume designer: Kirston Mann
Editor: Tatiana S. Riegel
Music: John Frizzell
Casting: Allison Jones