If you’re trying to build the kind of sexy buzz that only reaches the ears of the linked in and wired — say, the tech-savvy affluent folk with Showtime subscriptions — maybe the kind of blitz currently being enjoyed by The United States of Tara isn’t such an awful idea.
The new Showtime series starring Toni Collette (who’s been nominated for Oscars) and executive produced by Diablo Cody (who won an Oscar for writing Juno) and Steven Spielberg (who has won a bunch of Oscars, too) has an incredible pedigree and the digital push to match. According to Rob Hayes, the senior VP and general manager for Showtime, the full Tara pilot has been distributed during the past two weeks to more than 100 different partners. Every possible service, from iTunes to AOL to Netflix to Joost to Veoh to cable providers to mobile platforms, seems to have been given free access to the series.
When the show debuted on YouTube this Monday, it racked up more than 500,000 views in the first 24 hours, which Hayes claims is the most successful YouTube premiere of a full-length episode of TV. While he was reluctant to give specific numbers as to viewer drop-off, he did say that “the majority of viewers watched more than 50 percent of the episode” — which means people watched at least 15 minutes of the half-hour debut. Given that 15 minutes in the world of online video is an eternity, that’s pretty impressive.
As one of the 500,000 who checked Tara out on Monday, I was pleased that, for the most part, the show lived up to the talent behind it. Collette (who I will forever love based on her performance in Muriel’s Wedding alone) is as engaging as ever as a career woman and mother struggling with multiple personality disorder; she does an amazing job of portraying the different “characters” that complicate her family life.
However, the characters, even on a small screen, seem cartoonish. Rosemarie DeWitt oversells her role as the jealous sister, and Brie Larson, as Tara’s teenage daughter, is less believable as teenager than Collette is as Tara’s adolescent girl personality. While the choice to launch the show with Tara’s family well-aware of her condition means that the storytelling is efficient and relatively free of unnecessary exposition, there’s not a lot of narrative thrust to the first episode, and the plot essentially stalls out at the 15-minute mark.
The hook of the series — gawking at the extreme personalities, both those inside Tara and those surrounding her — is definitely intriguing, but it may not be enough to engage new viewers, especially new viewers without Showtime subscriptions.
Although the choice to open the pilot with a three-minute vlog is a nice touch — and makes the show fit neatly into the little YouTube screen — I highly doubt that was Diablo Cody’s intentions from the beginning. I also doubt that the narrative device will continue on for future episodes. Not that it matters, as the pilot’s appearance on the Internet is a one-time deal for the series — one that Hayes doesn’t expect will affect the performance of the episode when it premieres on Showtime next week. “Even if they’ve already seen it, people are going to want to watch it on their TVs. We don’t think that it will be cannibalistic.” But since this is the only episode that will be distributed online, the issue isn’t so much cannibalism as it is hoping that the cannibals will come back for seconds.