Ellen Gray: 'Tara' gets a somewhat happy ending

Brie Larson (left) is Kate and Toni Collette is Tara Gregson.
Brie Larson (left) is Kate and Toni Collette is Tara Gregson.
Posted: June 20, 2011

NURSE JACKIE. 10 tonight, Showtime.

UNITED STATES OF TARA. 10:30 tonight, Showtime.

SHOWTIME, the network for characters who color outside the lines - usually way outside and occasionally with bodily fluids - says goodbye tonight to one of its more memorable.

Make that several of its more memorable.

"United States of Tara," which stars Toni Collette as Tara Gregson, a Kansas wife, mother and artist living with dissociative identity disorder (what most of us call multiple personalities or "that thing 'Sybil' had"), ends its third and final season following the Season 3 finale of "Nurse Jackie."

"Jackie," who's also a piece of work, will be back, Showtime having apparently decided to cull its herd of crazy one show at a time. More about her later.

I wouldn't have predicted this three seasons ago, but I'm going to miss "Tara" more than I might have missed "Nurse Jackie" (though my admiration for star Edie Falco remains undiminished). At the same time, I can't blame Showtime for its choice.

Even for a service that relies on subscribers, not advertising, ratings eventually matter. I wonder, though, if it weren't also that Tara's tangled story had reached a point where the audience might be safely extricated from it.

Her children (Keir Gilchrist and Brie Larson) are grown, or nearly so. Her sister (Rosemarie DeWitt) is learning to cope with a child of her own. And Tara's long-suffering husband (John Corbett) is becoming, at least, someone whose suffering doesn't have to be in silence.

I know they claim it's a comedy, but in the world of mental illness, this is as close to a happy ending as some families ever get.

Anyone who came into "United States of Tara" in Season 1 expecting an aha moment in which learning the name of her abuser would effect a miracle cure was bound to be disappointed. We not only know his name, Tara's incorporated him into her menagerie of "alters," a group that with a less skillful actress might have looked like characters in an acting-class exercise.

I've never watched "Tara" to see Collette execute those quick-change acts - though I certainly will miss Buck and Alice - but because I thought the show captured beautifully the dynamics of a family that's trying to remain balanced when one of its members isn't.

The best description of the show, though, came earlier this season from Gilchrist's character, Marshall, an aspiring filmmaker who finally realized what he had after turning the camera on his parents:

"It's not a monster movie, it's not a dysfunctional family - it's a love story."

There's love, too, in "Nurse Jackie," in which Falco plays a high-functioning addict: an emergency-room nurse whose workplace ingenuity is only matched by the lies she tells herself and everyone around her.

The love is buried so deep under those lies that it's getting harder to find, and Jackie's ability to sidestep ultimate disaster, time after time, is beginning to seem as unlikely as the continued survival of Showtime's serial-killer-with-a-code, "Dexter."

What saves "Nurse Jackie," beyond Falco's unflinching performance: a supporting cast every bit as extraordinary as the one surrounding Collette - including but not limited to Merritt Wever, Anna Deavere Smith, Eve Best, Paul Schulze, Peter Facinelli and Dominic Fumusa - but whose characters' story lines aren't tied entirely to Jackie's compulsions.

And then there are her girls, Grace (Ruby Jerins) and Fiona (Mackenzie Aladjem), who aren't yet old enough to escape their mother's shaky orbit.

For Showtime to have ushered the audience out now, leaving those two behind, would have been a sin far worse than fleeing "Tara."

'Countdown' & counting

Keith Olbermann is tamping down expectations for tonight's debut of "Countdown" (8 p.m., Current) in its new cable home.

Olbermann, who left MSNBC in January, is now with the nearly 6-year-old Current, brainchild of former Vice President Al Gore and businessman Joel Hyatt (Comcast, which has it at Channel 107, owns a 10 percent stake).

It boasts a Peabody Award-winning news show, "Vanguard," and until now, a U.S. audience that might just overflow the Wells Fargo Center. It's available in 60 million homes.

Whatever Current's paying Olbermann - he's not saying - even conflicting reports measure his compensation in millions, not thousands. So there have to be some expectations, right?

"There are no set targets. If the people in the truck from which we are directing this show, the control room in the truck, if they can see the show - there's like 10 of them in there - if they can see it, that will be a satisfactory audience total for Monday night," Olbermann said in a conference call with reporters Friday. "The ratings we're interested are really for year 2013. . . . We're in this for the long haul." *

Send email to graye@phillynews.com, follow on Twitter: @elgray or online: go.philly.com/ellengray.

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