Review: Wigs, accents, and great characters mean ‘Tracey Ullman’s Show’ picks up right where she left off
In her 30-plus year career in television, Tracey Ullman has done more to boost the wig-making economy than any other woman except perhaps Dolly Parton.
Beginning with “The Tracey Ullman Show,” the groundbreaking sketch show that helped establish the fledgling Fox network back in the late ‘80s and introduced “The Simpsons” to the world, the British actress has earned a reputation as a comedic shape-shifter and unparalleled impressionist.
She’s up to her old tricks in “Tracey Ullman’s Show,” premiering Friday on HBO. The six-episode series, which aired earlier this year across the pond, where it has already been renewed for a second season, reprises Ullman’s signature blend of celebrity impersonations, outrageous characters and comedic musical numbers.
“Basically I’m still doing the same show I did in my mother’s bedroom, and I’ll do it ‘til the bitter end,” Ullman sings in the show’s opening credits. And, while I can’t vouch for the show she did in her mother’s bedroom, it’s true that she’s not exactly breaking new ground. (Even the title is just a single possessive “s” away from her Fox series.)
Sketch comedy has evolved considerably since Ullman first burst onto the scene, with shows like “Inside Amy Schumer,” “Key & Peele” and “Portlandia” pushing the form into absurdist, socially relevant new realms. As such, some may find “Tracey Ullman’s Show” a touch dated, but her acutely observed characters are generally enough to overcome any mustiness.
The contemporary subject matter also keeps things fresh. After spoofing American culture in the Emmy-winning “Tracey Takes On...” and “Tracey Ullman’s State of the Union,” she turns her gaze back to the U.K. at a turbulent time. With sketches about libraries closing because of budget cuts and refugees stowing away on the bottom of RVs, it might as well have been called “Tracey Takes on Brexit.”
Ullman is drawn to formidable women of a certain age, and finds humor in playing with expectations.
She does a wonderfully prickly version of Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, imagining her as a posh boozehound. Her Dame Judi Dench is a kleptomaniac mischief-maker, clogging toilets in five-star hotels just because as a “national treasure,” she can get away with it.
In a less successful bit, Ullman plays German Chancellor Angela Merkel as a sultry, image-obsessed sexpot.
But as Ullman makes clear even in her less hilarious moments, being a good impressionist is about observation as much as execution. The most jaw-dropping impressions don’t mimic obvious vocal tics or distinctive facial expressions (Robert DeNiro’s grimace, Bob Dylan’s rasp), they illuminate traits so subtle and ineffable, you may have never noticed them before.
“Come to think of it, Maggie Smith does have an interesting way of pronouncing her Rs,” you might find yourself thinking.
This truth even applies to her fabricated characters, whose gestures, accents, costumes and hairdos are so specific, you have to believe they’re based on real people. There’s a proud Northern real-estate agent who wields her fingernails like talons and a crazy-eyed Irish entrepreneur who peddles twee, overpriced ceramics.
Ullman brings these characters to life so vividly, there are times when — forgive the cliché, but it applies — she almost literally disappears. During a sketch about a deluded app developer who treats the local coffee shop like his own fiefdom, I wondered when Ullman was going to show up. (Turns out she was there the whole time, playing him.)
The sketches are timely even when they’re not entirely ripped from the headlines; there’s a very funny bit about an Internet literacy course for older people (called Silver Surfers) in which they learn to troll and foment racial hatred.
Some of the references — to “Coronation Street” characters and Scottish politicians — might be lost on American viewers without advanced degrees in Anglophilia, but for the most part the humor transcends cultural barriers.
Sketch shows are almost inherently uneven, and the same is true of “Tracey Ullman’s Show.” The best material is darker, zanier and lands in unexpected places. Case in point: a sketch about a convicted war criminal trying to put a positive spin on her genocidal past during a job interview. (“A lot of burials obviously had to be undertaken, and if you look at it purely in those terms, I was very successful,” she says calmly.)
The interwoven format, cutting between several sketches, means some ideas never really get off the ground. And there’s a laugh track which feels especially intrusive.
Canned laughter isn’t necessary for this fine showcase for Ullman’s distinctive talent — and those wigs.
‘Tracey Ullman’s Show’
When: 11 p.m. Friday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
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