The new TV series United States of Tara, written by former City Pages editor Diablo Cody, premiered on Showtime on Sunday. We did a brief fly-over of reviews from around the country to see what the nation's critics thought of the new effort from last year's media darling.
Although it wasn't quite the critical tongue bath Cody received for Juno, reviews were generally positive, if pointedly reserved. Most were willing to accept the odd premise of a wife and mother who has multiple personality disorder, and they gave high praise to Toni Collette in the title role for fleshing out her three darkly comic alter-egos: Alice, a '50s-era homemaker; T, a sex-crazy teenage girl; and Buck, a beer-guzzling redneck man. Critics also liked the supporting cast, including John Corbett as Tara's saintly husband.
As for the writing, Cody generally received solid but not effusive compliments, though some reviewers were only too happy to point out a few of the script's self-consciously clever "Cody-isms" that so annoyed critics of Juno.
Here are a few snippets from national reviews, both print and online.
THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER: The film industry trade paper said United States of Tara breaks new ground when it comes to warped dramatic family comedy." ... The show is "blessed with dazzling acting and the dynamic pen of creator-exec producer Diablo Cody (Oscar winner for Juno , no one-trick pony). ...[It] 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."
WASHINGTON POST: "Whatever it is, it's fascinating, the television equivalent of the book you can't put down. ... The marvel of it is, Diablo Cody uses the gimmick in so many wild ways that it stops seeming like a gimmick in fairly short order. ... There isn't much of a story... but just getting to know Tara and her world is rewarding and sometimes much more deeply affecting that one would expect."
THE NEW YORKER: Tara, unlike Juno, is not a vacuum wrapped in an attitude inside a hoodie. ...Collette is impressively convincing, even though I'm not entirely sure what I'm being convinced of."
TIME: "Tara is funny, fascinating, and frustrating. As in Cody's pregnancy comedy, too many characters speak the same pop-culturese, and each persona is a flat-out cliche. ... Tara has the potential to be a great comedy about identity, but it needs to be less self-conscious about its strangeness.
LOS ANGELES TIMES: "It's not that different from The Beverly Hillbillies or The Addams Family in the freaks-versus-straights department. ... While it's generally entertaining, there are times when it seems too obviously invented."
USA TODAY: Cody has given [Collette] a great showcase, the kind of role that virtually screams "Emmy nomination."
NEW YORK TIMES: The Times had the best headline ("Disparate Housewife"), but was virtually alone in dismissing Collette's performance. "Tara has four personalities and is one-dimensional in all of them. Her alters are caricatures, and while grotesque exaggeration may all too often be the case in real life, a drama requires more subtlety. ... United States of Tara has a big premise and some wonderful small touches, but strangely, Tara is the least of them."
Tara and Cody fared decidedly less well among online critics:
SLATE: [Cody] swiftly discovered a knack for cheesing people off, largely because she is a creature of the times and because snark itself is her art, subject, and default mode. The ideal specimen of a Diablo Cody line ... is pleased with its own cleverness almost to the point of hostility, sneering as it snaps past. ... So, here we get, "Sometimes you make me feel like I'm living in a Lifetime lady-tampon movie"; "That dude is such a waste of hair product"; ... "cluck-cluck" (as a synonym for "fried chicken"); "Sudoku" (as a racial slur); ... and--this is T explaining how Tara found out that her daughter took a morning-after pill--"She went all CSI in that pubic thatch you call a backpack." For whatever reason, Cody has front-loaded her scripts with this stuff--is she trying to alienate the audience? Tara doesn't yet show the same emotional depth as Juno, but if you have the fortitude to make it through the tonal assault of its first 10 minutes, then you'll get to see some recognizable human feeling seep up through the wisecracks."
TELEVISION WITHOUT PITY: "The first ep[isode] sucks approximately 50 rotten eggs."
DEFAMER: "We'd prefer a Hills marathon, a Larry the Cable Guy special, and some Leave It to Beaver to this. At least there's some authenticity in that artifice. United States of Tara isn't just bad. It's bad four times over.
The bottom line: Most critics found the show promising but didn't think it had yet hit its stride, and many were cautiously looking forward to upcoming episodes.