Tracey Ullman's State of the Union
10-10:30 p.m. Sunday, March 30
It's hardly a secret that, when it comes to creating characters and impersonating celebrities, there's no one better than Tracey Ullman. It takes a village just to hold all of them.
Putting that enormous talent to work in a one-time special is a no-brainer as HBO has demonstrated time and again, but figuring out a way to package Ullman's brilliance in a series, week after week, is harder. American viewers haven't been enthralled by a primetime series with great characters and sketch comedy since the heyday of Carol Burnett during the 1970s.
"Tracey Ullman's State of the Union" just might be the right vehicle, but if so, it needs some customizing. Each half-hour show consists of a single day in the U.S. In scene after scene, Ullman presents Americans from Los Angeles to New York and plenty of points in between. Many, but not all, of these characters show up week after week.
The premiere introduces many of the characters. I counted 16, but I could have missed one or two. It's a showcase for Ullman's remarkable skill, but it is done too fast for the comedy to percolate. We barely have time to figure out who the character is before there's another one. And another.
Things are better in succeeding episodes. There's more emphasis on developing a sketch than on seeing how many characters can be packed into Ullman's comedy phone booth.
Several of Ullman's creations stand out immediately: Chanel Monticello, a airport luggage inspector, is hilarious. Also smart are Marion Churchill, a Jamaican caregiver; Padma Perkesh, an Indian pharmacist who gives advice Bollywood-style; and Doris Basham, a senior citizen caught with Canadian meds.
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.
Ullman's impersonations of other celebs, including Renee Zellweger, Helen Mirren, Judy Dench and Suzanne Somers, are admirable but not nearly as witty or impressive as her take on quasi-celebrities. Perhaps Ullman simply has more room to maneuver as Linda Alvarez, a news anchor in Buffalo, N.Y., and Dina Lohan, who dominates the parties with the other moms of out-of-control star daughters.
The series launches after new episodes of "The Tudors." Not much audience flow, for sure, but definitely a night of original and attractive series.
TRACEY ULLMAN'S STATE OF THE UNION
Allan McKeown Presents
Credits: Executive producers: Allan McKeown, Tracey Ullman
Producers: Bruce Wagner, Gail Parent
Produced by: Shawn Wilt
Director: Troy Miller
Writers: Tracey Ullman, Bruce Wagner, Gail Parent, Craig DiGregorio
Director of photography: Anthony Hardwick
Production designer: Dan Butts
Editors: Kabir Akhtar, Rick Kent
Music: Richard Gibbs
Set decorator: Britt Woods
Casting: Marisa Ross, Alyson Silverberg
Multiple roles: Tracey Ullman
Guest star: Scott Bakula
Other cast: Jennifer Fitzgerald, Christopher Goodman, Jo Ann Harris, Lily Holleman, Ajay Mehta, Bon Ogle, Larry Poindexter, Valeri Ross, Dylan Sprayberry
Narrator: Peter Strauss