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Diablo Cody on United States of Tara’s Cancellation: ‘If I Do TV Again, I Would Do It Differently’

Earlier this week, Showtime canceled United States of Tara, the series created by Diablo Cody, executive produced by Steven Spielberg, and starring Toni Collette, who picked up an Emmy for her portrayal of the title character, a woman with dissociative identity disorder. What the hell happened? The show is good! We spoke with Cody to get her take on what went wrong (beyond low ratings), how she's taking the news, and where she is with her next two feature films.

We were bummed when we heard.
Yeah, I was pretty dejected too.

How did you find out?
I found out yesterday [Monday, the day the news broke] from Showtime. I think everybody found out yesterday. I had intuited that we weren’t coming back since we’re usually in preproduction by this time, and we weren’t. It’s great detective work on my part.

And what was your reaction?
I’m a little depressed. Mostly I hope everyone who worked on the show finds a job right away. But I also feel like we made an innovative and interesting show, and any time you can provide Toni Collette with a vehicle for her craft — oh, shit, I said craft. I hate that. Anyway, Toni gives a performance of a lifetime and it was a privilege to be a part of that, and I know I sound like a cliché, but the sentiment is genuine.

Have you talked to her about it?
Yeah, we were e-mailing today. And obviously I think we both feel the same way about it: proud but sad.

What do you think went wrong, if anything?
I don’t really think anything did. The viewers just weren’t there.

Was there anything that could have been done differently, where there would be more viewers?
I don’t think I’ve processed the news fully yet. It could have been more sensational, maybe. It should have been more like Gigolos.

You tweeted that you can’t believe you "lasted three seasons in the lion’s den.” What did you mean by that?
Well, you know, television is unbelievably competitive. It’s tough to keep a show on the air, even when you’re in an environment like Showtime, which is incredibly nurturing, which they were, from beginning to end. So I have to say, when I wrote the pilot for Tara, I never even expected it to go to series. So you beat the odds just by getting to that stage. So I guess what I meant was to last for three years is exceptional.

Would you do TV again?
Absolutely, I’d like to. I think if I did do TV again, I would do it differently. I think it might be a more solitary process. I don’t think I ever got the hang of the writers’ room. I love collaborating with people, but I really do my best work alone, and I think I would want to — if I did something again, I think I’d want to take total ownership the way Aaron Sorkin or David Kelley does. I think Glee is written by three people, which is very interesting.

Why, what was your writers’ room like?
We had a lot of people. Like up to eight or something. Which is fine and it was really cool and I worked with some incredible people. But for me it’s hard to be in a room all day. I spent a lot of time staring at the clock in school, so I have that kind of personality. I can’t sit still for longer than five minutes, so it was a conundrum.

Was there tension in the room?
No, we always had great rooms. The second season it actually felt like group therapy.

You once told us you didn’t love the way the first season turned out.
First season was tough, man. I was still adjusting to life as a working writer. My feature career was probably at its peak and I was riding out my fifteen minutes of fame, which was an ordeal. You know, I did not like being famous. It was a stressful and ugly time, and I’m glad it’s over. And at the time, I think, I was just coming off Juno, and I think people were expecting a Juno-esque writing style in the Tara scripts, which was something I was already past, creatively. I didn’t really want to turn in eight pages of gobbledygook banter every week, but that expectation was there, so basically I was kind of a mess during the making of the first season. But I got my shit together later on and I think it shows in the episodes. I think the show gets stronger and stronger, and I’m proud of that.

Do you feel a little like Juno is a monkey on your back?
No, I mean, Juno will always be a blessing. But at the time, it was limiting for sure.

Given the timing of the cancellation, the show is not going to have a proper series finale.
Yeah, it sucks.

Knowing how this season is going to end, do you think it’s going to satisfy fans as a series finale?
I think it’s satisfying that the identity of Tara’s abuser was finally brought to light. We were always big on the comedy of sexual abuse. Sorry, that was an inappropriate joke. But I think the idenity of Bryce is revealed, and I think we got to the bottom of a lot of what caused Tara to dissociate. And I think that aspect of it is satisfying.

Are there going to be any new cliffhangers that are going to torture us?
Not really. I think it is a nice, natural end.

How do you think the series may have ended differently if you had the opportunity to wrap things up? Would Tara be cured?
I think if we were going into another season that’s what we would be figuring out right now, and I would be in a room and everybody would be asking me to sit down. And then I’d cheer up — I actually miss the room now.

You’re bummed.
Yeah, I guess. I don’t really have the luxury of wallowing. I have a baby and a lot of work to do.

You have two big projects coming up. Where are you with your movie Young Adult?
It's coming out! I can’t tell you when, but I know when.

2011?
Yes.

Tell us how this film might compare to Juno or Jennifer’s Body.
I think it’s different. The storytelling is similar, but I don’t know, we will see. I’m very proud of it. I think it’s a very provocative movie and the performances are great. I hope people like it.

As you were writing it, were you aware of trying to be the more grown-up, thirtysomething Diablo?
[Laughs.] Don’t you dare reveal that I’m in my thirties. I don't know if I was really conscious of that. Writing that script in particular was a really emotional process for me, so I think I was just coming from a primal place. Wow, I am pretentious today. I said craft and I said primal. Terrible. [The script] is more about maturity. Like you said, actually: being in your thirties. Looking back on your life and looking forward. People used to talk about a midlife crisis, but we’re so focused on identity as a culture that I think we have multiple crises each decade. So this is like the early mid-thirties crisis.

On the other hand, you have the Sweet Valley High adaptation.
I finished the script. I desperately want to talk about it, but I never know where the muzzle is. It’s going forward and I’m very excited about it, and I have cool things to share in due time ... Armie Hammer is playing both twins. There you go.

Right. So what are you doing today, are you going to, like, treat yourself to anything?
No, I’m not the kind of woman that gets a pedicure and a peanut brittle sundae and cries. I think I’m — I don’t know. Write.

Any words of comfort from anyone? Has Spielberg called you?
I have not heard from Steven yet, but I’m sure he’s wallowing too.

Were you guys in touch throughout the show?
Oh, yeah, definitely. The cool thing about him, aside from the fact that he’s a god and a genius, is that he’s always incredibly involved in everything he does. He does not just put his name on something. His soul and his input were with Tara throughout the entire journey, and I can’t believe I had the privilege of working with him. I can’t believe it. It’s the coolest thing I’ll ever do.

So next time, just no writers’ room.
I wasn’t a fan of the institution of the writers’ room, I was a fan of the writers. I really want to state that, because I made some incredible friends.

You’re just too type B for that structure.
Yeah, I can’t get my shit together. I’m loose. In every way.

Photo: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images