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Tracey Ullman's State of the Union: Complete Season One

(Showtime; US DVD: 11 Nov 2008)

Tracey Ullman’s State of the Union is Ullman’s biting take on the current state of America.  Through a combination of well-known celebrities, regular Americans, and a host of immigrant characters, Ullman digs in to her material with energy and abandon. 


The five episodes that make up the first season are structured in such a way as to create some connectedness between all the characters, yet it is not overtly giving the viewer a structured storyline.  In other words, the sometimes loose connections between the characters are beside the point.  Ullman’s full commitment to playing them is the real fun of the series.  Her chameleon-like presence is sometimes astonishing, particularly in playing characters as disparate as Andy Rooney, Renee Zellweger, and Arianna Huffington. 


Figures in Hollywood receive some of the most pointed and cutting characterizations in the series.  The actors and actresses she focuses on are portrayed on press junkets and in clips from the fictional films they are promoting.  Ullman’s Zellweger plays a character who suffers a head injury leaving her with “chronic narcissistic squint” and allowing Ullman to mimic flawlessly.  Her Judi Dench is promoting her latest film about Alzheimer’s, directed by Martin Scorsese, entitled Who the Fuck Was I? 


Possibly Ullman’s most critical characterization is of Dina Lohan, mother of Lindsay Lohan.  She plays Lohan as a completely irresponsible, self-centered, hard partying celebrity wannabe.  She’s always shown holding court among other mothers of young stars in a club while repeatedly ignoring reports about her troubled daughter.


While Ullman skewers Hollywood and celebrity life, she also devotes a good number of characters to figures in the media.  From Campbell Brown’s hysterical and panic-inducing Washington reports to Andy Rooney’s curmudgeonly editorials on 60 Minutes to local news anchor, Linda Alvarez, whose idea of international news consists of reports on American celebrities in foreign countries.  Ullman’s choice to include the media in her satirical view of America is a smart one in that its influence permeates so much of the country. 


Ullman’s portrayal of Arianna Huffington is one of the treats in the series.  She plays Huffington as single mindedly blog-obsessed, to the point where she signs off her blog with “blogs and kisses” and then literally curls up in bed with her laptop.  Ullman has Huffington’s accent down in a way that goes beyond impersonation – there are moments when it is easy to mistake her for the real thing.   


Many of Ullman’s original characters are either recent immigrants or minority characters.  Her Padma Perkesh is an Indian pharmacist who dispenses medication and then proceeds to outline all their harmful side effects in a full on Bollywood number.  As she sings and dances, her coworkers fall in line in a choreographed dance and the pharmacy falls away to reveal a performance stage.  Chanel Monticello, an African-American airport security worker with a hilarious penchant for using the x-ray machine to diagnose her coworkers, is a character that like Padma, could quickly devolve into simple, stereotyped behavior, but there is a sense that Ullman finds comedy in all and in the end these characters fare no better or worse than any of her others.


What sets this series apart from other comedy sketch shows, apart from the fact that Ullman plays nearly all of the characters, is the full embodiment that Ullman brings to her characterizations.  Her non-famous, regular folks portrayals offer the best example of this.  For instance, Irma Billings, a low-key middle American, is played straight.  There are none of the larger than life personality traits that Ullman exploits in her more famous subjects.  Instead, the comedy comes from a more subtle place. 


Another wonderful example of this is in Gretchen Pincus, a death row groupie whose current husband is about to be executed.  As she’s crying to the writer of her life story, she receives word that another death row inmate is interested in her and she immediately perks up – a reaction that is one of the funniest in the entire series. 


Ullman obviously possesses a gift for impersonation, but part of what makes her so successful is the lengths she goes to in order to present as realistic a character as possible.  Whether she’s playing Asmaa Qasim, the biggest star in Malawi, who has come to America to adopt a child; Laurie David, an environmentalist with a private plane and a deep bitterness for her ex-husband, Larry David; or the perpetually injured David Beckham, Ullman shines in the details.  In playing close to 40 different characters, Ullman is wise to make them less broad and more nuanced and she deftly straddles the line between over-the-top and more restrained characterizations. 


The bonus features include make-up tests that feature some informative and very funny commentary from Ullman, as well as bloopers and outtakes, and deleted scenes.

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J.M. Suarez has been a contributing writer at PopMatters since 2008. She's happy to talk about TV any time, any place. Really.


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