Tracey Takes On: Movies, Hollywood, Vanity
The Tracey Ullman Show, Tracey Ullman's eccentric comic-anthology series of the late '80s and early '90s, is best known for introducing The Simpsons to the public, but it was also an interesting, uneven show that revealed Ullman to be a talented if mannered comic actress. After leaving television for a few years, Ullman returned with Tracey Takes On, another comic-anthology series. This time, she tackles a different theme for each show, then illustrates it through a series of comedic vignettes. Unfortunately, Tracey Takes On is often little more than a self-congratulatory showcase for Ullman's increasingly irritating overacting. Whereas The Tracey Ullman Show featured a frequently brilliant supporting cast, Tracey Takes On is instead something of a one-woman show, with Ullman playing any number of different characters, sometimes even several in the same scene. While this task is technically impressive, it's not as artistically effective. During its weak moments, of which it has many, Tracey Takes On has the disconcerting aura of a performance by a one-man band: While the ability to play guitar, knee cymbals, and harmonica at the same time is a marvel of human concentration, it ain't exactly art, nor does it make for enthralling entertainment. Likewise, Ullman's displays of acting virtuosity often come off as craft for craft's sake. For someone so acclaimed for her range, Ullman's characters are all pretty similar: Her working-class characters are broadly drawn grotesques that frequently lapse into vulgarity; her male characters are either prissy or Neanderthal; and her female middle- to upper-class characters rarely come off as anything beyond clever caricatures. Not that the show is worthless; it isn't. When she's not hidden behind layers of grotesque makeup or braying in some stereotypical New York Jewish nasal whine, Ullman can be a clever social satirist. Her show, however, would benefit from a greater emphasis on writing and less emphasis on turning its star into a one-woman wax museum of sideshow freaks.