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Diablo Cody on United States of Tara’s First Season: ‘I Wasn’t Completely Satisfied’

Diablo Cody, whose Showtime series United States of Tara begins its second season tonight, has been known to speak freely. So we weren't shocked when she told us that she wasn't a big fan of the first season of Tara, and that she wouldn't have even watched it had she not, you know, written it. But going into the second season of the quirky dark comedy — which follows a woman, Tara (Toni Collette), with dissociative identity disorder — Cody tells us why she's much happier with the final product. We also spoke to her about her upcoming adaptation of Sweet Valley High, and why she "owns" the failure of Jennifer's Body.

How are you feeling going into season two?
I wasn’t completely satisfied with the last season, actually. I thought the performances were outrageously strong, and obviously the show is not lacking in resources. Spielberg is a god; Showtime is a great place to be. I feel like there’s no reason for the show not to be great. So going into season two, I thought, I have to stop being kind of passive and awestruck. I’m not so green anymore that I can’t insert myself in stuff that I feel is lacking.

What do you mean, "insert yourself"? Aren’t you the creator?
It’s actually much harder to develop a TV show than I had anticipated. I kind of came into it completely clueless and I treated the first season like film school, to learn as much as I could and talk to these veteran writers that we have in the room. And really, it’s never your show, unless you’re an incredibly strong personality, a visionary like Matthew Weiner or Tina Fey. So it took an entire season for me to feel like, okay, I actually have a knowledge base I can actually draw from now and, it's like, my involvement isn’t going to spoil the broth.

Were you satisfied with the tone of the show?
I have to tell you, this show is a challenge, in terms of tone, and it’s a struggle to write a half-hour comedy about mental illness. You look at that category in terms of Emmys or the Globes, and it's stuff like Two and a Half Men and Glee. We couldn’t be more different. Nobody gets molested on Glee and nobody turns feral and pisses on her son’s bed, and that’s something we did in our fifth episode. We have to be consistently funny but also, because we’re about mental illness, have gravity.

How did you find the balance? Was it at times too glib or too heavy?
I feel like Matt Lauer every time I hear the word glib. I can’t blame Matt Lauer for that, actually. You know, I feel like … what was the question?

About the balance of the show between comedy and gravity.
I’m going to get in so much trouble for this. Last season I didn’t even feel engaged in the show as a viewer. I enjoyed it and I was proud of my work, but I thought to myself, objectively, I wouldn’t watch this show.

Why not?
Just because I wouldn’t — it wasn’t exactly to my taste, and I’m a picky viewer. This season there’s honestly nothing I’d rather watch, and I’m not saying that as promotional bullshit because I’m very against that.

What changed?
Ironically, I felt that Tara was one of the least interesting characters on the show last season — the audience responded to her various alters, but not to her. So in season two, we’ll get acquainted with Tara, the core identity of the character, and get some insight into her weirdness and her pain and what drives her forward through this endless storm of transition and treatment.

Were you happy with the reception of Jennifer’s Body?
Not financially. But critically, it was about what I expected.

Why don’t you think people went to go see it?
I’m not sure. I think the people who predicted it would be a hit were definitely off. I didn’t see it as a movie with huge commercial appeal, that wasn’t what we set out to do. But it’s surprising that more boys didn’t want to come out and see Megan. I’ve said it before, but the movie was marketed exclusively to guys, and there’s obviously a huge female audience out there. Look at how Dear John just did, those girls went out to see Amanda [Seyfried]; Amanda wasn’t even on our poster. I don’t like to lay blame, though. I own it, I own my failure. I hate it on American Idol when they do a horrible performance and they come onstage and go, ‘Well, I had fun.’ I think that’s bullshit. If you failed, you didn’t have fun, and I did not have any fun.

I read you’re adapting the Sweet Valley High books.
Yes, I am. I grew up with those books, so it was an ultimate fantasy for a girl who grew up in a Midwestern suburb.

What are you going to do to those books?
I don’t know. It’s always the strangest question because it’s not, like, Atlas Shrugged where people are like, "You must have a tremendous amount of respect for this material, you better not fuck this up." And yet, people have been surprisingly vocal about the fact that they don’t want me to ruin Sweet Valley High. It’s like bubblegum, come on.

Is that your only current project?
I'm working on a movie about a woman who’s stalking her high-school sweetheart. It has elements of humor, but it's pretty serious and fucked up. You don’t get to see women be antiheroes that often, where it's like somebody like Mickey Rourke, who gets a comeback in The Wrestler. It's rarer that you'll have a studio say, "Let's have an actress come back and be ugly!"

Photo: Rebecca Sapp/Getty Images