"State of the Union" Review

March 29, 2008

Jonathan Storm: Tracey Ullman takes her licks at the U.S.

By Jonathan Storm
Inquirer Television Critic

Dark hilarity outweighs the down times, as Tracey Ullman returns to TV tomorrow at 10 p.m. on Showtime with some of the best social and political TV satire this side of The Simpsons.

That show got its start in 1987, you probably don't recall, with teeny cartoons shuffled into the mix, designed to diversify the laughs in The Tracey Ullman Show, one of the initial successes of the fledgling Fox network.

Ullman is still energetic and rubber-faced 20 years on, settling in the skin of more than 30 characters in Tracey Ullman's State of the Union, a short-run (five-episode) series that skewers celebrities and ideologues while shining a light on some peculiar American behaviors and governmental failings.

You'll recognize Andy Rooney, Tony Sirico (The Sopranos' Paulie Walnuts), and soccer god David Beckham. Ullman rarely drags in drag.

But she's also ruthless with a panoply of females, including Lindsay Lohan's mom, rich liberals Arianna Huffington and Laurie David (comedian Larry's eco-obsessed ex-wife), Nancy Pelosi, several TV news gals, and, by reflection, Angelina Jolie.

"I am the biggest star in Malawi," one of Ullman's characters, decked out in full African regalia, declares. She has come to some poverty-stricken corner of unenlightened America to adopt a cute little boy and take him home.

"Maybe, just maybe, my fame will prevent him from dying from stupidity," she declares with self-important Jolie-esque ethnocentrism.

Borat came from Great Britain, via a fictionalized Kazakhstan, to make fun of dumb average Americans (mostly Southerners) while the upscale movie audience guffawed.

Britisher Ullman became a naturalized U.S. citizen last year, and her game's on a higher plane.

"Tip O'Neill never had to do this," mutters her House Speaker Pelosi, as she gets just enough Botox to smooth skin but not freeze her expression. "I want to be able to look surprised and compassionate when the gay marriage bill doesn't pass again."

Ullman's satire is at its best when she inhabits the little people. Airline screener Chanel Monticello runs people through her X-ray machine before the airport opens, checking for tumors and the like. "This is my way of helping the uninsured," she explains, jabbing U.S. efforts at airline security and health care in one stroke.

The episodes, each supposedly one day in the life of America, should leave viewers squirming, not just with laughter at the failings they portray, but with anticipation that Ullman and Showtime will hurry up and make some more.

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