After living in this country for more than 20 years — starring in television shows for us, raising a family here, winning our awards and cementing her status as a prodigiously gifted talent — British-born Tracey Ullman became a full-fledged U.S. citizen two years ago. I’m sure for Ullman the notion of answering questions on American history and the branches of government was easy enough, but I’d like to think she could have won Uncle Sam’s vigorous handshake just by doing the Renée Zellweger impersonation she serves up in her new Showtime sketch series, Tracey Ullman’s State of the Union. As she scrunched up her features and affected that Boop-ish gurgle to play the cloying actress as she’s vapidly promoting a piece of overwrought Oscar bait — about a woman afflicted with “chronic narcissistic squint” — I laughed like I haven’t in ages at celebrity-culture riffing. Now that’s patriotism, the kind that takes newfound membership as the ultimate excuse to start merrily throwing stones from the inside.
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State of the Union is Ullman’s latest exercise in one-actress-fits-all comedy, as she dons assorted wigs, costumes and formidable accents to play a cross-dress-section of the American public, from the wealthy to the working class, from the spotlit to the spot-stained. She’s a tolerant Jamaican caregiver, a shaky Andy Rooney and a pregnant septuagenarian. She’s shameless plugmeister Suzanne Somers, a wise Nebraskan housewife, an eager-to-diversify Tony Sirico (a.k.a. Paulie Walnuts) from The Sopranos and an undocumented Bangladeshi cleaning woman. Peter Strauss delivers the omniscient narration, intoning at the start of the show a few facts about America, establishing the country’s colorful-personality bona fides, and kicking things off with, “Let’s visit its people for a day.”
Fans of the U.K. sketch series Little Britain — in which Matt Lucas and David Walliams inhabit a spectrum of English wack jobs — will recognize the similarity to the role Tom Baker’s stentorian voice plays on that show. But once Ullman starts with the chameleon follies, it’s very much her brand of melting-pot humor, a flipbook of characterizations that show off remarkable breadth as they send up our nation’s societal trends, hot-button issues and human foibles by the truckload.
The big difference with Ullman’s gallery show this time around is how many real people she impersonates, and how liberating it clearly is to add the boldface and the beautiful to her well-established roster of everyday zanies. But thankfully, the cruelty of her satirical beam is in direct proportion to the level of wealth and fame of her characters. So while she can mine plenty of laughs out of an Indian pharmacist who launches into Bollywood numbers to warble on the effects of certain prescription drugs, an eagle-eyed African-American airport security agent (a variation of the one she did in her ’90s series Tracey Takes On …), or a Midwestern soldier mom who’s running out of time to be a parent, she reserves the real claws for spotlight seekers like Zellweger, Dina Lohan and Laurie David.
She devastatingly portrays Lohan as a drunken velvet-rope troll holding court at clubs with other celebrity moms and blithely treating her daughter’s missteps as a manageable currency in the public-eye business, telling her friends, “Remember, if your daughter cardiac-arrests in a nightclub once, shame on you. If she cardiac-arrests twice, shame on me.”
Larry David’s ex, meanwhile, comes in for a proper thumping, Ullman dishing up an insider-Hollywood take that razzes the environmental activist’s famously abrasive side, and her criticized use of a private jet (which we’re told in the sketch has been ecologically retrofitted to run on vegetable oil and potato skins). It’s a deliciously venal performance that you don’t have to be a global-warming disbeliever to enjoy.
Coming in for healthy ridicule as well are media figures, from anchor Linda Alvarez’s now-you-hear-it-now-you-don’t Hispanic pronunciations to husky-voiced ex-MSNBC-er Rita Cosby’s anything-for-a-story vibe, to the needless fearmongering on the 24-hour news networks. On that last front, Ullman gives us a version of dark-haired CNN newswoman Campbell Brown as an apocalyptic messenger whose stories on government reports or health scares are so vaguely laden with disaster alerts that they inspire widespread screaming from her own colleagues.
When you notice L.A.-based novelist Bruce Wagner’s name in the writing credits, it’s not a stretch to suppose he had a firm enough hand in the more surgically precise parodies of Hollywood culture, but they’re not all hit jobs. Ullman’s Arianna Huffington is a strangely sweet rendering, a portrait of the glamorous political pundit that has plenty of fun with her thick, ululating Greek accent yet also suggests that her ardor for blogging masks a palpable loneliness. (We see her literally blogging herself to sleep at night.)
One of my favorite celebrity-skewering bits, though, isn’t even a direct impersonation but a tweak on Madonna/Angelina–inspired African-baby chic, with Ullman playing a rich, press-hungry Malawi film star who comes to the Ozarks to adopt a poor boy from America.
“Maybe, just maybe,” she tells the gathered news crews, “my fame can save this boy from dying of stupidity.”
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.
TRACEY ULLMAN’S STATE OF THE UNION | Showtime | Premieres Sunday, March 30, 10 p.m.