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It's Showtime for characters with issues

When Toni Collette won the Emmy in September as outstanding lead actress in a comedy, viewers across the country undoubtedly were asking "Who is Toni Collette?"

After all, the Australian actress stars in a little-watched Showtime series, "The United States of Tara."

Showtime, which now has more critically acclaimed series than pay-cable rival HBO, answers that question tonight through Sunday with a free preview nationwide for many digital cable viewers.

Unfortunately, the preview isn't available on Time Warner Cable here.

Jeff Unaitis, vice president of communication for Time Warner in upstate New York, explained in an e-mail that the cable provider needed to give subscribers 30 days advance notice and the right to opt out of a preview that offers programming rated more adult than PG-13. He added there were technical issues. Asked why TWC didn't send notifications in time, Unaitis added: "It must have slipped through the cracks."

Local cable subscribers will be missing last Monday's season premieres of "Tara" and another acclaimed series, "Nurse Jackie." They normally air at 10:30 p.m. and 10 p.m. Mondays, respectively.

Not that "normal" is a word associated with either series. They are about extremely complicated, modern women who don't fit any broadcast network television mold. In addition to the series about flawed family women with problems, Showtime also is offering select episodes from its series about flawed and damaged men -- "Californication," "The Tudors" and "Dexter" -- during its preview.

But let's start with the women. "Tara" was created by Diablo Cody ("Juno") and the executive producer is Steven Spielberg. Collette ("The Sixth Sense," "Little Miss Sunshine") stars as a mother and wife who has multiple personalities. Her husband, Max (John Corbett), is patient, compassionate and understanding, but that may change this season.

Tara has two children, a high school son, Marshall (Keir Gilchrist), and an older daughter, Kate (Brie Larson).

In the second season opener, Tara hasn't "transitioned" into one of her "alters" in months. Of course, the series wouldn't be interesting if it became as normal as "Ozzie & Harriet," so by episode's end and in Episode 2, Tara is back in one of her strange, self-destructive modes.

"Tara" isn't a series that can be easily explained in one episode, and the opener isn't likely to make many instant fans. That's partly because it doesn't deliver its message in typical TV style. Instead, it allows the viewer to see that people don't need to have multiple personalities to have an identity crisis and that it is best to be -- and know -- yourself.

"Nurse Jackie" has a few personalities of her own. Jackie Peyton (Edie Falco of "The Sopranos") is the mother of two young girls, the oldest of whom is worried about faulty wiring in the house. Jackie also is wired a little differently. She is an exceptional nurse with a salty tongue and a loving husband who knows it isn't wise for anyone to mess with her. She also is a clandestine lover of drugs. Oh, yeah, she has a boyfriend, Eddie Walzer (Paul Schulze), who complicates her life after he is told to leave. Eddie has befriended Jackie's trusting husband, Kevin (Dominic Fumusa), a bar owner who thinks he has the perfect wife.

Jackie also has a friend at All Saints Hospital, Dr. Eleanor O'Hara (Eve Best), with whom she shares a mistake-prone subordinate, Zooey (Merritt Wever); a supportive boss, Gloria Akalitus (Anna Deavere Smith); and a young doctor, Fitch Cooper (Peter Facinelli), who doesn't know as much about medicine as she does and has a crush on Jackie.

Jackie can be loving to her husband, nasty to doctors, supportive to damaged co-workers and a sweetly manipulative advocate for patients fighting the health care system. In short, it wouldn't be easy to be married to Jackie, but you would want to have her on your side.

Once again, this isn't a series that probably will instantly connect with viewers. But Falco's performance is so riveting and the secondary characters so appealing that "Nurse Jackie" can easily become addictive.

My favorite of the trio of troubled men is Hank Moody (David Duchovny), who is a role model for Tiger Woods. Hank is a formerly successful novelist with a gorgeous life partner, Karen (Natascha McElhone), and a wise-beyond-her-years teenage daughter, Rebecca (Madeleine Martin). His best friend and agent Charlie Runkle (Evan Handler) has his own marital and sex issues.

In a typical episode, Hank delivers lines loaded with wit as dry as a martini, drinks a lot, has sex a lot with multiple partners and pretty much creates a lot of problems for himself, his friends and anyone who he comes in contact with. He adores Karen and Rebecca, but finds ways to damage those relationships and then tries to repair the damage.

Hank makes "Californication" a guilty pleasure that borders on soft porn. And unlike Tara and Jackie, what you see from Hank -- and there's plenty to see -- is what you get.

"The Tudors" has never been my cup of tea, so I'll skip right to "Dexter," the series about a serial killer who is a blood splatter expert for the Miami police department. It stars Michael C. Hall, who earned an Emmy nomination as best dramatic actor.

Playing a serial killer who matched wits with Dexter Morgan (Hall), John Lithgow made last season an exceptional one. The season also dealt with the changes in Dexter after he and his new wife (Julie Benz, who is now on "Desperate Housewives"), had a child.

As in just about all Showtime series, Dexter is a complicated figure who does very bad things but somehow manages to be a sympathetic character. "Dexter" also has a strong cast and does a great job of building suspense. And the Lithgow season had a killer ending.

"United States of Tara," 3 stars out of 4; "Nurse Jackie," 3 1/2 stars; "Californication," 3 stars; "Dexter," 4 stars

e-mail: apergament@buffnews.com

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