You probably already know that Tracey Ullman is a "chameleon comedienne," but major reviews in media outlets across the nation feel the need to mention it anyway. But Tracey's back with a new half-hour show, State of the Union — Showtime, 10pm, Sunday — which "celebrates" her U.S. citizenship with rapid-fire impersonations of various American cultural fixtures and everyday folks. Dina Lohan, Arianna Huffington (above left) and Laurie David are targets; Ullman also includes some characters she's created, like an airport security guard and Bollywood-singing pharmacist. Reviews of the "pretty darn funny" Ullman and the "rapid-fire" pacing of her show, after the jump.
Still, impersonation is a dying art and few do it as well as Ullman. To parody Huffington or Beckham or Dina Lohan (mother of Lindsay) may be a bit like shooting fish in a barrel, but it's still pretty darn funny. Not the least because we don't see it all that often any more. Yes, we're meaner than we used to be, fueled with take-down websites and snarky entertainment columnists, but personal satire is a rare commodity these days. Gone are the variety shows that once showcased talents like Rich Little — pickings are so slim nowadays that "Saturday Night Live's" choice of an Obama impersonator is front-page news.
Some of her celebrity impersonations are better than others. Her take on Tony Sirico, who played Paulie Walnuts in The Sopranos, is more impressive than amusing, and her version of the CNN anchor Campbell Brown falls flat. But at her best Ms. Ullman is high in the pantheon alongside Gilda Radner, Catherine O'Hara and Ms. Burnett. State of the Union is a fitting showcase for the woman of so many faces that nobody tries to keep count.
Appearing virtually ageless, Ullman (who exec produces with her husband, Allan McKeown) doubtless spreads both the financial pain and chore of donning all that makeup by shooting multiple scenes of herself as, say, 60 Minutes' Andy Rooney or notorious mom Dina Lohan, then scattering snippets across multiple episodes. Nevertheless, each half-hour packs in a laudable assortment of such bite-sized confections, and if there's a repetitive quality to the satire (especially when it comes to mocking actors), well, that's more a quibble than a full-throated criticism.
Showtime has scored some recent coups with its original programming, but this one might be the most impressive — having the foresight to bring back a talent like Ullman, whose act seems so familiar, at a point where she couldn't be more timely or fresh.
Interestingly, though, Ullman's impersonations are rarely as funny. Each week includes a spoof of Laurie David, the globe-trotting environmentalist and soon-to-be ex-wife of Larry David. Considering her relatively low public profile, the amount of time spent lampooning her environmental extravagance is massive overkill. Same with the weekly shtick on Arianna Huffington and oft-injured soccer star David Beckham. Once is plenty.
Which isn't to say that State of the Union is merely wicked fun, mean games, and goofy looks. Ullman's America needs work. Each of her half-hours is loosely organized around a theme, such as illegal immigration (12 million undocumented workers), the urban homeless (3.5 million, 1 million living in their cars), children needing adoption, and the exorbitant cost of medical care. But "loosely" is, in Ullman's case, more than an operative word; it's practically an aesthetic. [...] As the jokes go up like tracer fire—about nuns, bankers, face-lifts, red states, and Alzheimer's—somewhere underground a reality principle rumbles toward a reckoning. How funny is it, really, that an African princess should adopt a blue-eyed American boy and fly him home to eat nutritional roots?
Be warned: Because she can do so much, initially she's doing too much. Though fun, the opener's skits are too short, and the characters too numerous, for any one joke to register.
But give the show a week to settle, and the strengths of Ullman's concept come to the fore. As the show grows clearer and funnier, you may even find yourself anticipating the return of favorite characters — like Padma Perkesh, the Bollywood pharmacist, or Chanel Monticello, a TSA agent who gives free X-rays to people who don't have health insurance.
As with any sketch show, it's all ultimately a hit-and-miss affair, but Ullman's circus-freak virtuosity as a shape shifter — and director Troy Miller's rapid-fire pacing — are enough to carry you past the rough spots. Besides, there are only five episodes in this short run, and with so many characters packed into each show — and nearly three dozen overall — one could argue it's perhaps medically sound for Ullman's channeling energies that she let us digest this bunch before Showtime (hopefully) orders more. Excess is enough of a problem in America without its newest constituent succumbing to it.
Related: Tracey Ullman's State Of The Union [Showtime]