United States of Tara (Sunday, 9 p.m., Showtime) portrays the modern American family in all its mad glory. Like many harried moms these days, Tara (Toni Collette) has multiple personalities - though in her case that's not just a figure of speech. Stress causes Tara to morph into oddball characters who are grudgingly accepted by her husband and two kids. In the pilot, we briefly meet the real Tara, who spills her guts in a video diary. She's embarrassed by her job designing fantasy spaces for rich people and horrified by evidence of her daughter's sexual activity. Suddenly, she transforms into "T," a raunchy teenager who snarls sarcastic slang at the family table. Later, another trauma changes Tara into "Buck," a redneck who challenges her daughter's boyfriend to a fight.
In the role(s) of a lifetime, Collette delivers nothing short of a tour de force. She benefits from a wicked script by Diablo Cody, who makes colloquial English snap and crackle just as she did in Juno. Cody thoroughly understands a family in which the son drinks chai and the daughter begins a cell phone call from her boyfriend with "Hi sex robot."
Executive produced by Steven Spielberg, the series succeeds in making this fantasy semi-plausible. We Americans are used to craziness - indeed, the "normal" moms in this neighborhood have manic depression or breast implants - so why wouldn't Tara's family tolerate her own special brand of crazy?
"We're lucky, Mom," Tara's son tells her. "Because of you, we get to be interesting."
"Interesting" doesn't begin to describe it.
Saturday Night Live Presidential Bash
Sunday, 6 pm (NBC)
Barack Obama's inauguration bodes ill - for TV humor, that is. We've had a stunning run of presidents who were ripe for parody, from Kennedy to LBJ to Nixon to Ford to Carter to Reagan to Bush I to Clinton to Bush II. Obama, by contrast, offers almost nothing for a comedian to work with, as you will see in SNL's collection of presidential skits.
I might vote for Mitt Romney in 2012 just for the sake of comedy.
Sunday, 8 pm (WHA)
I haven't read Wuthering Heights since high school, but PBS's production matches my memory of the experience: confusing and compelling. It plunks us down in Emily Brontë's haunted English moors, where the orphan Heathcliff is brought into the Earnshaw family and falls in love with young Catherine.
Okay, "in love" might not be a strong enough term. After Catherine dies, Heathcliff charges into the windy night, digs up her grave and lies with her skeleton, imagining his beloved's face in place of the skull. There follows a tangled narrative involving revenge, abuse, woolly sideburns and way too many people with the first and last name "Linton."
The L Word
Sunday, 8 pm (Showtime)
As The L Word begins its final season, I can't help but regret its unfulfilled promise. A drama about lesbian friends and lovers could have been fascinating, but all these characters do is sit around talking about their relationships in a never-ending soap opera. That doesn't describe my lesbian friends - well, not all of them, anyway.
Tuesday, 11 am
Barack Obama has vowed to bring a divided America back together, beginning with his pick of the anti-gay pastor Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at his inauguration.
As the camera scans the crowd, you'll see Democrats, Republicans, gays and evangelicals brawling over Warren's role. If Obama continues with this style of unification, we'll all have tattered clothes, black eyes and missing teeth by the end of his first term.
Make 'Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America
Wednesday, 8 pm (WHA)
I was disappointed by last week's premiere of the three-part series on American comedy. It felt shallow, rushed and arbitrary. This week's episode on physical comedy is a big improvement. The subjects are well chosen, and each of them gets a decent amount of screen time.
The episode not only introduces Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, the Three Stooges and the Marx Brothers to neophytes, but also offers revelations for aficionados. One commentator perceptively notes that "Chaplin was a funny thing in a regular world; Keaton was a still thing in a crazy world." We learn that Lucille Ball didn't consider herself a natural comedian, but a careful student of comedy. She once insisted that Red Skelton teach her a simple pantomime step-by-step, finally mastering it after two hours of hard work.
The episode pays tribute to Jerry Lewis, who has been inexplicably scorned by some cultural gatekeepers. (I'm talking to you, Kennedy Center Honors.) The clips of an insanely inventive Lewis in the 1950s Colgate Comedy Hour look like the start of modern comedy, prefiguring everyone from Steve Martin to Jim Carrey. Richard Belzer offers a concise summation of Lewis' genius: "He wrote it, he produced it, he directed it, he starred in it.... He was the total filmmaker." Another admirer chimes in: "You cannot attach to him normal human traits."
Thank God for that.