Variety Reviews "State of the Union"

March 20, 2008

Tracey Ullman's State of the Union
(Series -- Showtime, Sun. March 30, 10 p.m.)
Filmed in Los Angeles by Allan McKeown Presents. Executive producers, McKeown, Tracey Ullman; producers, Bruce Wagner, Gail Parent, Shawn Wilt; director, Troy Miller; writers, Ullman, Wagner, Parent, Craig DiGregorio.

With: Tracey Ullman, Scott Bakula.
Narrator: Peter Strauss.

Tracey Ullman has joked about her role in suckling "The Simpsons" -- a reminder that her early Fox sketch show failed, while the animated family birthed within it lived and (fabulously) prospered. The 20-year gap, however, has brought TV to a place much in need of Ullman's talents -- an acerbic, scatter-gun approach to comedy that, even when it misses, inspires admiration for her chameleon-like gifts and ferocity in attacking targets large, small and utterly obscure. Comedy-variety isn't an easy genre to duplicate, but with sitcoms in decline, Ullman's return provides a welcome jolt to the funny bone.

The loose template for each half-hour is a day in the life of America, with Ullman playing virtually all the characters, both famous and fabricated. They range from Arianna Huffington ("Blogs and kisses," she writes, signing off her daily diary while watching "Charlie Rose" alone in bed), environmentalist Laurie David and a squinting Renee Zellweger to an African-American FAA baggage inspector, a woman who marries death-row inmates and an Indian pharmacist who dispenses advice by way of elaborate, high-pitched Bollywood numbers.

With each fast-paced segment soberly introduced by narrator Peter Strauss, "State of the Union" moves swiftly, dispatching its varied subjects in rapid-fire fashion. This is wise, since if you don't like the bit where she plays an investment banker carrying on an affair with her co-worker (Scott Bakula), well, just wait a minute and another personality, Hydra-like, will rear it head.

While there are no sacred cows in Ullman's parallel universe, there is a consistent theme if you look closely: A recurring, not-so-subtle jab at the U.S. media -- a toxic medley of cloying human interest stories and breathless celebrity, where every disease-of-the-week movie star vehicle is generating "Oscar buzz," newscasters like Rita Cosby (with Ullman perfectly capturing her hoarse rumble) literally crawl on the floor for a "scoop" and anchor Campbell Brown does an entire piece merely by breathlessly repeating, "Horror. Terror. Nightmare. Horror. Fear."

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.

At least within Ullman's cutting overview of America, in fact, it can be reported without reservation that the "State of the Union" is strong.
More than one option

* (Person) Peter Strauss
Narrator, Voice, Executive Producer
* (Person) Peter Strauss
Executive Producer

Camera, Anthony Hardwick; production designer, Dan Butts; editors, Kabir Akhtar, Rick Kent; music, Richard Gibbs; casting, Marisa Ross, Alyson Silverberg. 30 MIN.

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