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TV Review: Is United States of Tara the New Dexter?

United States of Tara and Nurse Jackie both have their third-season debuts tonight. Alan Sepinwall’s terrific review briskly sums up the two series: thumbs-up for Tara, thumbs-down for Jackie. Best of all, Sepinwall provides a savvy definition of Showtime Disease, an affliction that has taken down some of my favorite cable series. “Most Showtime series burn hot, burn bright, then hang around for a very long time, flickering on and off, because it's bad business sense to let them simply burn out,” writes Sepinwall. Then he takes a well-aimed swipe at late Dexter, “which will never change a darned thing about its formula so long as it's the channel's biggest hit.”

This blew my tiny mind, because it made me realize that I've come to see United States of Tara as the true sister act to Dexter — one that hasn't taken the dive Dexter did in season five. Like Dexter, Tara is a stylized allegory about the roots of mental illness, but with femininity as the focus instead of masculinity. And while a lot of TV fans I know wrote off Tara early on, the Diablo Cody–created series, which stars the wild and subtle Toni Collette, has slowly taken its premise deeper, bolder places than I ever expected, all while maintaining an arch-comic tone that could sour if it weren’t so smart. Far more ambitious than bloated award bait like Boardwalk Empire, it has become a truly original series, a dark comedy about sexual abuse, swinging at existential questions about its heroine’s struggle to become a real girl.

Does that sound grim? It’s not. The show may be more funny-peculiar than ha-ha, but it is also a real pleasure to watch, owing to the fact that Tara is surrounded by a great ensemble, including Rosemary Dewitt as Tara’s new-mom sister, John Corbett as Tara's sweet sap of a husband, and Keir Gilchrist and Brie Larson as her teenage children. If the show started out overglamorizing Tara’s outsider status, it’s now shredded that premise by exploring the origins of Tara’s illness: a college date rape, time spent in a foster home, and now the revelation that she had a stepbrother who was blotted out of the family record. Like Dexter at its best, the show is a sharp and unsentimental take on what it means to survive radical childhood damage, by turning one's splintered self (as Tara’s psyche does, in both healthy and terrifying ways) into a perverse performance. This is material that appears all the time in more exploitative contexts on TV: on CSI, SVU, or Lifetime movies, where a slick rape fantasy often lies just below the veneer of earnest concern. But Tara takes a survivor's eye view, delving into the sick comedy of it all, which really has more relationship to the way people actually cope in the world—by using dark humor and running jokes to get by.

The third season is especially smart in pushing back at some of the rationalizations Tara's family has adopted over time: that Max is a perfect husband (rather than her enabler), that her sister is the narcissist (rather than Tara, who endlessly causes crises), and the idea that despite it all, she's a great mother, however frightening and unstable she can be. In the later part of the season, the plot goes to some seriously scary places, helped along by a charming performance by Eddie Izzard as Tara’s college professor. I might question a plot turn here or there, but overall, the show is clearly on an ambitious path. Fingers are crossed the show keeps moving forward — unlike Dexter or Big Love, two similarly themed shows that went, in different ways, off the rails. We're only three seasons in, but I have high hopes.

Photo: Jordin Althaus/Showtime