But would any teenager really feel that way? The show is resolutely wacky, but it is clearly also intended to be about real and sometimes painful feelings. In the show’s opening episodes, Tara’s teen kids aren’t simply resigned to their mother’s situation, they’re her cheerleaders—cringeworthy wish-fulfillment that makes these scenes nearly unwatchable. Then slowly, as Collette’s nuanced performance kicks in, refreshing ambiguities start to soak through, including an acknowledgment that she’s lost whole regions of her own experience. At its best, Tara can feel like a sister to Showtime’s Dexter: a heightened allegory for a woman’s struggle to reconcile her own frightening sensations of vulnerability, desire, and aggression.
It’s an intriguing theme, and it would be wonderful if it pays off. But like The L Word, in which the once-juicy soap-opera plot has become a series of ineffective shocks, and Weeds, featuring another appealing but frustratingly inconsistent outsider-heroine, Showtime’s series have borderline personalities. They’re charismatic; they’re unpredictable. Yet there’s also something grotesque and manipulative in the mix. When HBO series fail, it’s most often because they are too ambitious—pretentious, arty, overreaching. For all the good writing and fabulous actresses, at their worst, Showtime can make you feel like a sucker or a cynic, someone who longed for the girlfriend experience and found instead a bag of practiced tricks.