Diablo Cody Learns How To Write Dialogue

“Having multiple personalities is like hosting a kegger in your brain, only you’re passed out cold while everyone else is trashing the joint.” — Tara

One thing I like about The United States of Tara (the pilot has its official Canadian premiere on TMN tonight, though it’s already been shown online) is that Diablo Cody has figured out how to use her dialogue gifts for good instead of evil. Juno’s fake-stylized dialogue drove me nuts, but in Tara, the stylization has been toned down enough that it’s fun rather than irritating. Maybe the need to write distinctively for each of Toni Collette’s multiple personalities (“Lots of debonair men throughout history have had their peccadillos,” remarks her Stepford-Wife personality, Alice, in the second episode) has forced Cody to think a little more about how to avoid making all the characters sound the same, but even the non-split characters kind of talk like human beings. The second episode has Tony Hale as an uptight literature teacher who gets upset at Tara’s son Marshall for pointing out an erection metaphor in a book; Marshall’s punchline – “I think I know my literary boners” – was a very Diablo Cody line, and yet funny and in-character for a smart teenaged boy.

A less positive aspect of these early episodes is that they seem to meander from scene to scene without having much story backbone. Maybe that will change, or maybe I’ll get used to it, but I feel like each episode is the first half of a one-hour show, where the second half is missing. The slow pace and long scenes (without the deluge of background music that we get in network TV shows) are typical of the pay TV style, and we’ve all grown to love that kind of thing. But it means that 13 of the show’s 26 minutes can be over before the story gets going, and I don’t feel like each episode establishes its own identity. Cody does try to give an episode its own theme, usually some issue that Tara feels unable to deal with and uses one of her multiple personalities to handle. But a Tara episode still seems more like a half-hour worth of scenes, conflicts, and discussions about the problems of being a quadruple mom – including discussions of issues we’ve already seen addressed in previous episodes. Maybe I’m simply judging the show by the wrong standards, but I feel like Tara, so far, is trying to apply the style of hour-long shows to half-hours, with the result that the episodes feel too long and too short: too short because the scenes appear to be building up to a climax that never comes, and too long because there’s not enough to set each episode apart from the last one. But these are problems that can get fixed as the season goes along.