Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Rave Reviews Keep Pouring In!

Courant.com
Tracey Ullman's Back, As A Hilarious Cast Of Thousands

By ROGER CATLIN

Courant TV Critic

March 30, 2008
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Tracey Ullman gets credit for putting her comedy mark on Sunday nights, if only because her old Fox variety show helped introduce " The Simpsons," still going strong in its 19th season.

But her profile rises even more with her marvelously realized new show. "Tracey Ullman's State of the Union," a series of only five episodes that starts tonight on Showtime, celebrates her skills as master impressionist and her recently acquired U.S. citizenship.

The British comedian has lived in the States for 25 years, so she has a lot to draw on for this deftly constructed series. Each episode is set up as a "day in the life" documentary of the nation and its myriad of personalities — domestic workers, celebrities, yoga teachers, security guards, housewives, the homeless, nuns, soldiers, pundits — all of them vaguely looking like Ullman.

Like Catherine Tate, her prevailing British counterpart, Ullman's oft-recurring portrayals are based more on wry observation and jolts of comedy than heavy makeup. But she's able to do some fearless things, including portraying an array of men, ranging from a hilariously dotty and over-the-hill Andy Rooney ("60 Minutes"); to "Sopranos" actor Tony Sirico (Paulie Walnuts), who extends his career playing an Inuit with an Italian accent; to a pesky, spiky-haired David Beckham identified as "husband of Posh Spice and perpetually injured soccer star."

She has plenty of celebrities to portray, continually appearing as a variety of actresses doing interviews in increasingly far-flung film festivals (from Sundance to Butte). Among them are a flashing Helen Mirren, a giggly Cameron Diaz, a perpetually squinting Renée Zellweger, and Judi Dench playing in a Martin Scorsese movie on Alzheimer's with a vulgar title.

Some of the funniest recurring characters, though, are people who are just barely celebrities — who are hilarious even if you don't know them. One is Arianna Huffington, who sleeps with her laptop and has a dramatic Eva Gabor accent and penchant for using "blog" in every part of her speech.

Another is Laurie David, the environmentalist and estranged wife of Larry David ("Curb Your Enthusiam"). Laurie is only seen flying around in her private jet, often cussing out those below her.

You may not remember Fox News correspondent Rita Crosby and her odd hoarse voice, but it will all come back to you in Ullman's cutting portrayals of her, doing anything for the big story.

Ullman's most devastating portrayal, though, may be of Dina Lohan, who ignores the various overdoses of her daughter Lindsay to chat with the girls in a hip nightclub's "holding pen for moms awaiting their out-of-control starlet daughters."

Some of her characters are good for only their brief appearances on the show, such as "the biggest movie star from Malawi," who turns the tables on Angelina Jolie and her ilk by coming to the Appalachians and adopting a poor American child. Or the 70-year-old from Mississippi who decides to get pregnant but falls asleep during her ultrasound and, later, between contractions. Or the spunky mainstay from a regional production of "Chicago" returning after a double-hip replacement (but not quite making it back on the stage).

It may take "Saturday Night Live" a season to put out this many funny characters and celebrity portrayals. But the glossy "State of the Union," narrated by Peter Strauss, churns out a dozen or more in each week's half-hour.

It may take a while to construct something this dense, though. Ullman chose to lampoon newswoman Campbell Brown for fear-mongering reports, but depicts her as still working for NBC, which she left last June. A better anchor, though, is Ullman's recurring Linda Alvarez, morning anchor for WBFW in Buffalo.

Some of Ullman's characters are just sight gags, such as tangled-up yoga instructor Chandra Perkette, whose toes wiggle around her ears. But others portend full-fledged portrayals, such as Padma Perkish, a pharmacist of Indian descent who flies into Bollywood-style diagnoses.

Ullman does all this virtually single-handedly. Unlike the old "The Tracey Ullman Show" on Fox, whose supporting cast generally went on to become voices for "The Simpsons," the new show has Ullman in just about every role, with the exception of Scott Bakula, who plays opposite her as a philandering hedge-fund chief.

Occupying a comedic center ground between the straight skits of the old Fox show and the more involved scenarios from her HBO series "Tracey Takes On...," the fast-moving "State of the Union" will also be fast leaving. Its five episodes wrap up by the end of April — just as you're falling in love with it.

TRACEY ULLMAN'S STATE OF THE UNION starts tonight at 10 on Showtime.
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