Showtime has won considerable acclaim for these two sophomore series, which share many of the same strengths and, increasingly, similar flaws. Both shows feature compelling female leads in showcase roles, but in each case the complementary ensemble isn’t quite so compelling. Calling them “comedies,” moreover, is really a misnomer, since they function more like half-hour dramas, with an occasional laugh thrown in. “Nurse Jackie” and “United States of Tara” still make for a formidable and watchable-enough block, but while each has flirted with greatness, neither consistently achieves it.
Based on its promising first season, “Tara’s” second go-round is the bigger disappointment, due largely to a story arc that blunts some of the charms associated with Toni Collette’s title character, who struggles with dissociative identity disorder, or multiple personalities.
After acting to address the problem at the end of season one (and stop here if you’re planning to catch up on DVD), Tara has seemingly stopped experiencing such episodes. When they resume, she’s reluctant to inform her husband (John Corbett) about these new bouts and her nocturnal carousing, potentially disrupting their relationship: Other personalities he can deal with; being misled is another thing.
Yet while most of the first season was filtered through Tara and her “alters,” the second spends roughly equal amounts of time with each of the regulars, including her son (Keir Gilchrist), a teenager grappling with his sexuality; daughter (Brie Larson), who meets an intriguing woman (Viola Davis) through her dreary job at a collections agency; and relationship-challenged sister (Rosemarie DeWitt).
“Tara” also acquires some new supporting players, but the show feels more disconnected in scattering to pursue these various plots. In addition, the evolving interaction between Tara and her alters as she becomes “co-conscious” with them feels like little more than split-screen gimmickry.
Six episodes were previewed, and the producers fortunately saved the best for last, but until then it’s something of a letdown. Nevertheless, Collette’s performance — by turns sexy, vulnerable and baffled, even before she zones out and becomes someone else — is worth the price of admission. You just wish there was more of it.
“Nurse Jackie,” too, has a powerful central presence in Edie Falco as Jackie Peyton, whose big problem this year is the budding friendship between her husband (Dominic Fumusa) and first-season boyfriend, Kevin (Paul Schulze), whose behavior — insinuating himself into the couple’s life — makes her understandably uneasy.
The show’s anti-heroine faces complications at work, too. Jackie must hide her pill-popping habit from a suspicious colleague, while she remains at odds with the pompous, self-obsessed Dr. Cooper (Peter Facinelli), who has been designated the hospital’s public face in a cheesy marketing campaign titled, “If Looks Could Cure.”
Yet while Jackie remains a fascinating conundrum — a woman who takes noble stands and cuts corners on behalf of her patients, while hanging by a tenuous thread in her personal life — the brooding tone can become stifling. It’s cathartic, in fact, when Jackie finally blows up in a later episode, telling her husband he has “no idea what it feels like to be me.”
Other members of the hospital staff have their own struggles, and there are again plenty of topnotch guest stars, such as Julia Ormond and Harvey Fierstein. Still, their travails don’t get much beyond the sleeping-around-at-work complications found on “Grey’s Anatomy.”
With both shows, Showtime has wisely hitched its wagon to pairing big-name talent with promotable concepts — the kind sure to garner attention from critics and award voters. And while HBO famously claimed to be “not TV,” Showtime now shrewdly bills itself as “TV. At its best.”
“Pretty Good TV” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, but for “Jackie” and “Tara,” it’s an accurate diagnosis.