Sunday, March 23, 2008


SOTU: A Review

Tracey Ullman returns to comedic series television with a new series, Tracey Ullman’s State of the Union (SOTU), on a new network (Showtime, after 14 years with HBO) and with a slightly different approach to skewering the foibles of Americans. It’s been nine years since her HBO series Tracey Takes On… ended, and while she hasn’t been completely absent from the small screen (two seasons of a fashion-related program and two comedy specials for HBO), her voice has been missed. Now, emboldened by becoming an American citizen in 2006, she’s back. Fans will not be disappointed.

The premise of the series is simple. Each episode focuses on a day in the life of America as seen through the lives of its citizens and residents, both famous and unknown. Stock footage and linking narration (provided by Peter Strauss) take the viewer from one vignette to the next. In the course of a single typical episode, the story may flow from the dumping of a woman recovering from surgery on the street due to an inability to pay, to a TV reporter exposing such practices (and noting that the report would be great for her Emmy reel), to blogger Arianna Huffington wondering what to wear to the Bloggy Awards, to a pharmacist advising her elderly client about the side effects of his medication, to a soldier home from Iraq on furlough (a very short furlough) trying to see her son, and finally back to that woman who was dumped.

For those familiar with Tracey’s work from her previous American series The Tracey Ullman Show (Fox) and Tracey Takes On… (HBO), the vignettes are much shorter than a typical sketch on those series. This is a deliberate creative decision to appeal to the YouTube era of shorter attention spans. Some of the characters don’t need more time than this to have their stories told, but some could sustain longer sketches. None of the TTO characters appear in SOTU (although SOTU’s airport security guard Chantal Monticello is very similar to TTO’s airport security guard Sheneesha), but there is no reason why they couldn’t. There are musical numbers, chiefly Bollywood-style in the vignettes featuring Indian pharmacist Padma Prakesh (one of my favorites of the new characters).

Unlike her older American shows, though, SOTU features Tracey impersonating several famous people, among them Arianna Huffington, David Beckham, reporters Campbell Brown and Rita Cosby, Renee Zellweger, Cameron Diaz, Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, Dina Lohan (Lindsay’s mother) and Andy Rooney. Some of her targets may not care for the treatment they receive.

The inter-related nature of many of the vignettes recalls the interwoven nature of some of the TTO episodes such as Las Vegas, Hollywood and Road Rage, episodes which were and are among my favorites. The linking narration also helps to tie them together. Some of the vignettes work better than others, so if there’s one you don’t particularly care for, wait a minute or two for the next one.

The same spirit behind her previous series is present for this one, so those who didn’t care for her work in those will probably not care for her in this one, either. Diehard fans, though, will welcome her return, their only disappointment being that there are only five episodes in this first season. Let us hope that Showtime picks it up for a second season and beyond, for it will be worth it.

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