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Three's company in Showtime's United States of Tara

Tara Gregson and her three disparate "alts"; star Toni Collette
Premiering: Sunday, Jan. 18th at 9 p.m. central on Showtime
Starring: Toni Collette, John Corbett, Brie Larson, Keir Gilchrist, Rosemarie DeWitt
Produced by: Steven Spielberg, Diablo Cody, Justin Falvey, Darryl Frank, Alexa Junge

Who are you? Who, who, who, who?

Discombobulated Tara Gregson really wants to know in a new Showtime series that finds her Hulk-ing out when under duress.

Instead of turning green and bulky, she becomes one of three distinctly different "alts." The show is United States of Tara, the star is Toni Collette and the execution is so-so in what creator Diablo Cody (Juno) describes as a "sensitive, humorous, humanist" approach to Dissociative Identity Disorder.

It all gets rolling on Sunday at 9 p.m. central, with 12 half-hour episodes making up Season One.

Cody is the series' creative engine -- she wrote the first three episodes plus two others -- but Steven Spielberg understandably gets first billing among the five executive producers. It's his first associate with Showtime, providing further evidence that the network is getting ever closer to HBO in the series programming realm. Press materials quote Spielberg saying of Showtime: "They have brought bold new concepts and shows to television and their audiences have responded."

Tara is suitably bold, even if Sybil of course comes to mind. So does the notion that Collette is channeling some of the many faces of Tracey Ulmann. In the first four episodes, she morphs into "T" the mouthy female teen, Buck the beer-swilling male redneck and Alice the throwback '50s housewife. It's no wonder that snippy daughter Kate yearns for normalcy. "Why can't mom be manic-depressive just like all the other moms?" she laments.

Basically Tara has gone off medication at the advice of her dowdy looking therapist, Dr. Ocean (Valerie Mahaffey). It's supposed to be a means of getting in touch with whatever makes her lose touch. But T and Buck invariably raise hell and leave messes while Alice resorts to old-school disciplinary measures such as trying to wash her nubile young daughter's mouth out with soap.

"Having multiple personalities is like hosting a kegger in your brain," Tara observes at the start of Episode 2. "Only you're passed out cold while everyone else is just trashing the joint."

Husband Max (Northern Exposure's still-resilient John Corbett) has become remarkably accustomed to all of this. He and Tara have been married for close to 20 years, with no end in sight to her constant changes in appearance. It's getting harder for him to resist the sexual advances of T and Alice, though. This in turn worries Tara, who's thinking that Max might prefer one of the alts to her. Life was lots simpler during TV's Leave It to Beaver days/daze.

The Gregsons, who live in fictional Overland Park, Kansas (yes, there is such a place), also have an only son named Marshall (Keir Gilchrist). He's a geek-ish art film fanatic whose adolescence seems to closely approximate Woody Allen's.

Marshall wears ties to high school and appears to have a crush on a male classmate who invites him to join what turns out to be a right-wing evangelical theater company. Meanwhile, Kate tries to get away from it all by becoming a waitress at a chain restaurant whose young, by-the-book manager is a full-blown creep.

Both of these companion storylines seem stretched thin from the start. Kate wants to escape, but why would she choose such a soul-sucking job. Marshall supposedly wants to "infiltrate" the theater group, but it all seems mightily contrived.

Collette's performance(s) are suitably eye-opening, although the Betty Crocker-like Alice so far is much more interesting than the others. Buck in fact seems more like a worn-out Saturday Night Live caricature than a personality within whom Tara would take refuge.

As the show evolves, one or more of these alts may slowly dissolve -- or take over entirely. For Max's sake, let's hope it's not Buck. That might create more identity issues for him than "him."



Sunday is a night of no small import for both Showtime and HBO, which are going head-to-head with original series programming.

Showtime is returning both The L Word for its sixth and final season (8 p.m.) and Secret Diary of a Call Girl for its second (9:30 p.m.)

HBO will counter with the third season of Big Love (8 p.m.) and the second for Flight of the Conchords (9 p.m.).